In the last five years, education has been presented with more change than it was in the previous 500. The advent of the Internet and online education were embraced almost immediately by career colleges in the early 2000s. Gradually, the movement of online learning has transformed education delivery and taken many colleges and universities to a critical point where their fates could be determined by their ability to put it to effective use. While campus-based learning will likely always appeal to the needs and preferences of some students, the transitions that higher education has recently endured could be even more significant with the growing popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and what proponents say are endless possibilities. The future of education – from K-12 to graduate programs – is wide open, but is the movement to online courses what’s best for all students? Are they prepared for it? Is this a natural change or a deliberate, abrupt disruption for the betterment of a dated approach? Staff Writer Kevin Kuzma and Contributing Writer Brjden Crewe offer their opinions on these questions and more to help put the revolution caused by online learning into perspective.
Yes. Contrary to what the nonbelievers say about online education, the move toward online has been gradual and quite natural.
By all accounts – and the most reliable chronicle comes from Plato more than 2,000 years ago – the philosopher Socrates was a street preacher. He never wrote down his thoughts. Instead, the man the citizens of ancient Greece thought was a burnout and someone the establishment came to consider a threat for leading young minds astray stood in public and spoke what he knew about the nature of humankind and the failures of his government.
His teachings would eventually see him put to death, but long before swallowing hemlock, he managed to inspire a few minds. His student Plato, who recorded Socrates' oral lessons, went on to found the Academy, which was essentially the world's first university. The school’s list of graduates was impressive. Aristotle studied there for 20 years and eventually founded his own school.
The Academy gave the age's thinkers a place to share their knowledge. In modern times, the principles of the Academy are still the foundation for many of our educational philosophies and remain a basis for the arrangement of most traditional colleges and universities as we know them.
At this juncture in higher education, with many institutions struggling to operate campuses, technology is not necessarily reinventing education – it’s resetting it. Online learning has transitioned from what many university academics saw as an implausible mode of learning to what is quickly becoming the preferred method of education delivery. We have, to a certain extent, returned to the beginning before education began a firm association with time and place – a physical structure. A place to learn. And maybe today those factors are less important than ever for some students.
Plato’s Academy created a place for people hungry for knowledge to seek it out, whereas, on the street, Socrates could appeal to those who didn’t know they were hungry for it. While there was probably little distinction between these approaches at the time, Socrates’ method involved bringing the message to the people. Plato created a place for the people to come. Today, students are choosing to either stand and listen on the street (online) or venture down the street to take a seat inside a classroom (campus).
As technologically savvy as today’s students might be, should the education world be more hesitant about allowing technology to take over higher education? While more students want an online education, are they prepared for it?
In my time as a college student in the mid-1990s, it was a given that students learned as much if not more outside of the classroom than in it. The college-going experience offered an important life lesson all its own. You could not help feeling scholarly among the esteemed halls of academia or walking the expansive campuses of traditional colleges and universities and the sidewalks of the towns that live off them.
In America, our universities are places people come to from around the world to study. They are, quite literally, destinations. The campuses are often places to behold. The atmospheres are conducive to learning. There are other like-minded people walking the paths, sitting in classes and hitting on the freshman.
But with the advent of online education, colleges can extend their messages from campuses to cities and from the suburbs to the great wide open. Few probably see distance education as a Socratic-style invention, but I see much of his street-preaching technique here. Online courses put the emphasis on the message. Reach is more important than surroundings. More people can hear the message when you set up shop on their street corner, and you can get to them more frequently, more effectively and on their own terms. Technology has allowed us to eliminate the need for campuses altogether.
Our future is very much rooted in the past. If you need verification that higher education is making the move online, consider this: Since 2011, some of the nation’s most elite colleges, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was the first college to offer courses free online; Harvard; Caltech; and the University of Texas, have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon. Other elites have made considerable investments in open courses, including Stanford; Princeton; and the University of California, Berkeley.
Online learning is beginning to take over state-run universities. Last spring, it was announced that public university students in Florida would be able to begin working toward college degrees without actually attending courses on campus. The University of Florida will start a series of online Bachelor's degree programs with $15 million in startup funds for 2014. The university is the first fully accredited, online, public research university institute in the nation. California and Texas are also developing totally online university programs.
The single biggest reason MOOCs and other forms of online education will continue to ascend is flexibility. Throughout the last decade, there has been a blurring of the line between traditional and nontraditional students. Older students are becoming the norm as students put off their education to live their lives. Today’s students don’t have to give up three to six years of their lives to pursue a degree. You can work. You can have a family. You can move at your own pace. And you don’t necessarily have to pick up and move to a university town to dedicate yourself to your studies.
If only our greatest philosophers could have taught from a distance, they would have led much safer and possibly longer lives. We are told by historians that Socrates could have escaped his death. There was plenty of time for his entourage to smuggle him out of town and for the old man to lead a life of seclusion. But he stayed put to suffer the consequences. His punishment was handed down from his society’s leaders, and he felt he should stay to literally drink the poison. Things did not end well for Socrates or his methods. Does that mean online learning will die a similar death? Those who perceived Socrates as a threat were able to cast him as one and see him done away with. The establishment almost always finds its own way to win.
But if there’s one thing Americans never tire of, it’s convenience.