Online Education: What Will It Take to Become Mainstream?


According to Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the US, an annual survey of online education presented by The Online Learning Consortium between 5-7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2012 term.

Online education is the future of learning

More and more students are taking online courses and even graduating from online or hybrid (online and in person) universities. Online courses allow students who are hundreds or thousands of miles away to participate in high quality education classes. These same courses give working families the chance to go back to school and make it possible for them to take an extended course of study (taking 3 or 5 credits per semester) while working or taking care of their children. Online education is making knowledge accessible and–in some cases– free to the public. These online courses are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and bring thousands of users information with just a few keystrokes. An educated populace is one of the greatest things society can offer its members, however, there are some serious challenges that this type of education faces. Here are four problems that the online education system(s) need to fix before they become mainstream.

Problem 1. Online education providers need to charge more

Did you know you can take any MIT course for free online? Did you know through Coursera you can take over 1,500 courses for free online? Did you know that by enrolling in Khan Academy you can learn elementary grade lessons all the way through college and higher education courses, for free? There is no shortage of information to be learned from the internet, all it takes is a dedicated student and a few hours a day. A good education is priceless, however, the perceived value of a free course is… well, that it isn’t as good. One of the problems with the wealth of information available for free on MIT, Coursera and Khan Academy is, students pay attention to where their money goes. It holds less consequence when something is free, especially for students who are just beginning to make their way in the workforce. And although the free element does open doors for many students who would otherwise not be able to afford a college degree, most of these free courses don’t come with the ‘degree’ at the end of the journey, which also disincentivizes this method of education for many students. Which leads us to our next problem…

Problem 2: Online education systems need to come with a degree or certificate

Free? Yes. But does it come with a degree? Well, not exactly. Coursera offers a certificate for some of their courses, and Khan Academy comes with ‘badges’ that you can view in your profile, but as far as translating to a degree… it doesn’t. This isn’t always a problem for people trying to increase their knowledge on a topic, or practice a skill, but it isn’t appealing to students who are trying to qualify for certain jobs. This needs to change for online education to be taken to the mainstream.


Problem 3: Online courses need better student support

One of the many problems with online education is the inherent support issues. Students are 100% accountable for their actions during online education courses. They can take it at their own pace, and they can put it off for tomorrow at their own pace. Plus, many of the online courses (MIT in particular) only offer the materials needed for the course, and the lectures in video form. There is no place for the students to ask questions, to engage with a teacher, or set deadlines. Students are in some cases, set adrift in the sea of knowledge, and asked to make it to shore all by themselves. It is a daunting task, especially since up until this point, students have been spoon fed an education since they were in diapers. How can we expect students to do this all on their own?

Problem 4: Online programs need the support of school administrators

Online education in universities faces additional challenges. The routine fear of technology by many old school professors makes it difficult to include them in the online education process. It is hard enough for the administrations to make registering for classes online a painless process, let alone organizing online classes with support from their overworked professors. Introducing online education courses can disrupt the status quo, which is never easy to get behind. The administration needs to get behind online education in a way that makes it accessible for students and easily monitored by educators.

We need a hybrid of online and in person education. If Universities are able to push through the initial growing pains of setting up an online education system, the rewards are many. Take Stanford University: they have been able to set up a system that allows current students and non-students to take courses both on campus and online (leveraging cloud-based models) that allow them to work towards a degree or a certificate. The draw for online education comes from the accessibility and the low cost. Typical higher education can cost between $15,000 – $50,000 per semester. The online counterparts are free, or much cheaper. There are many schools that are adopting this online hybrid system of education, the newly founded Minerva Project is a school that  takes students around the globe and gives them a mobile education that changes lives. It is a four year university that takes students to a new city around the world every year, during these years students have all their lectures online and through video conferences with their professors and classmates.

We know that online education makes sense. It can reach students that are hundreds of miles away, it can help the working class get a chance at a higher education. It can utilize multiple styles of learning to give non-traditional methods of learning a chance. Online education is the way of the future. However, we need to take it more seriously. Students need to be able to have access to well organized and supportive information. They need to be able to reach out to a real person if there is something they don’t understand, and students need to be held accountable for their actions while taking these courses. And of course, it would help if all these online classes came with degrees at the end.


BitNavi is a blog conceived by Karl Motey in the heart of Silicon Valley, dedicated to emerging technologies and strategic business issues challenging the industry.

Kaya Lindsay is a local Santa Cruz contributor who spends her time globetrotting, surfing the web, and writing for the BitNavi team.

Follow her on Twitter: @KayaSays


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