It looks like online learning is here to stay.
The trend is growing, spurred by the demands of working students who need convenient, practical instruction at a cost they can shoulder. Consider these figures:
- Enrollment in online training programs spiked to 2,139,714 from just 229,363 between 2001 and 2009—a staggering jump of 832 percent.
- Classes in physical classrooms will nosedive to just 4.1 million by 2015, a fall of 251 percent from 14.4 million in 2010.
- Of 17.6 million current undergraduates in the U.S., 25 percent are older than 30. 32 percent of them work full-time. 37 percent of them work part-time.
Assuming the growth in eLearning continues, what can education providers do now to prepare for the digital future? (read Tips for studying online) The best education providers are making sure they keep their focus on the most important priority—the student. And how are they doing this? They're doing it with customized curricula featuring à la carte courses. They're doing it with flexible scheduling to accommodate work and family life. They're doing it with mixed content delivery systems that cater to the learning styles of visual learners and of auditory learners. Last month, academic leaders and online learning experts met for a conference called “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.” In attendance were university presidents and provosts from MIT, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon University and McGill. Also part of the discussion were the founders and heads of online learning providers including edX, Coursera and Khan Academy. The conference covered the following:
- The emerging potential for bringing online education onto traditional campus environments, to create interactive educational experiences in defined academic settings.
- The best practices of current online learning models.
- The barriers to adoption faced by institutions, faculty and the students themselves.
- The current and future financial models that make higher education possible (or keep it out of reach for many).
- The proposals for short-term and long-term goals for individual institutions and for post-secondary education as a whole.
It has been reported that about 75 percent of all education institutions in the U.S. offer online education programs, often with ace instructors and professors leading the virtual classes. Harvard now uses Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to make some of its courses available outside of the classroom walls. edX was formed jointly by Harvard and MIT to be an incubator for other higher education institutions to experiment with alternative teaching models where "the online/in-person divide has disappeared." Still, many in attendance asserted their belief that the campus remains the best place for learning. How this learning is facilitated, on the other hand, will inevitably change. Perfectly illustrating this point, the conference itself was interactive, with high-tech presentations that used 3D models and speakers participating via real-time satellite feeds. It's key to remember that "interactive" doesn't necessarily mean "online." It means active participation and is a learning philosophy that dates as far back as Plato, who saw engagement as the path to true understanding. The technological innovations of recent years (video lectures, Internet discussion boards, automated grading software, text-annotation programs and virtual laboratories) are improving every year. The improvements are making truly interactive learning a reality. Online programs are capitalizing on the latest platforms (laptops, tablets, smartphones and social media) to democratize education. This is creating a "constant conversation." Today's recorded discussions are becoming tomorrow's reference materials. Students are coaching one another via instant messaging clients. It remains to be seen how “normal” education takes place in the future. But there's no doubt that a significant part of it will be taking place in the virtual space that connects students all over the world—the Internet.