The Evolution of Online Education

online learning

If you’re in high school or college right now, you’ve probably never known what it’s like to not be able to take classes online. The majority of your teachers and professors remember academic life only being available in the classroom. Today, as nearly everyone connected to formal learning embraces Internet-based education, the future of online formats appears limitless.

Online education has come a long way since the Electronic University Network started offering Internet-based classes in 1986 and became the higher-education provider for America Online in 1992. A 2012 BABSON Survey Research Group study found that more than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall of 2011, an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year.

That includes those connected to Penn Foster, an online provider of alternative education opportunities. Options include a Penn Foster medical billing and coding online career diploma as well as veterinary technician certification — possibilities never known mere decades ago.

The birth of MOOCs

In the past two years, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have emerged, enabling greater access to online coursework. Free courses through prestigious universities around the world have been offered since 2011 through Coursera, an online education provider based in the heart of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, Calif. The concept has caught fire — 4 million students have signed up so far, and that has contributed to the company founders’ ability to raise $43 million of venture capital, Forbes reports. Coursera’s most prominent competitors are Udacity and edX.

Greater accessibility doesn’t necessarily translate into more academic inspiration. Rapid, undirected growth among online programs can be associated with fleeting student engagement, low completion rates and doubts about how much information students actually retain, Forbes says.

An online/in-class partnership

In most situations, online courses aren’t designed as a substitute for in-classroom learning but rather as an extension of the classroom. As Inc. Magazine points out, perhaps the best format is tandem learning. Online teaching techniques can boost in-classroom performance. Universities that have implemented the “flipped classroom” — where a planned lecture is offloaded to video so the professor can spend class time actually interacting with students — is fostering notable results.

San Jose State University, for example, incorporated edX into its Introduction to Circuits Analysis class last fall, in part because the failure rate for that class had been 41 percent. After one semester with edX on board, the failure rate for students in the revamped classroom dropped to 9 percent, Inc. reports.

As online education partners with in-classroom instruction, new outlets for learning already are evolving. You may think of Google Glass, for instance, as a frivolous accessory. But, it has amazing utility in an educational setting, with first-person videos, shareable lessons and remote teaching. Students and teachers continue to discover the ideal blend of remote and in-person academics.

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