Online education and distance learning

Affordable ways will be found for future generations to take advantage of post secondary education, but it won’t look like the way it does today. Aside from universities, community colleges will increasingly provide entry to the work force for well paying jobs using online learning and combining the instruction which both sets of institutions provide. The flexibility offered to students in terms of timing and costs will reduce the financial barriers which they their grandparents and parents may face.


When a twelve year old schoolgirl from Pakistan appears on a panel with Bill Gates, the President of MIT and Larry Summers at a session of the 2013 Davos World Economic Forum, it is probably worth taking note. The topic for discussion was the future for distance education and online learning, and can be viewed at 

The past

As backdrop, distance education is not new but the means of delivery is, and will likely have a major impact on how education services are delivered, the opportunities for teachers and students, and the undertaking and distribution of research findings. When the full impact will be felt is unknown, as Larry Summers stresses in the video, since the idea and practice is not new.

Correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK, MIT open courseware, courses delivered on television with tapes available for replay at the students’ convenience are all examples of the lecture component of distance education. The difference today is that the Internet provides a means of delivery which magnifies the opportunities for connecting the best teachers with students anywhere in the world who have access to the technology. Not everyone does, but this population is growing rapidly. It seems surprising that the education industry has been slow to adapt to the opportunities, or perhaps it sees them as threats. Less teachers may be needed and those like myself who enjoyed a tenured existence will find diminished opportunities. Governments may however experience cost savings.

Present and future

Online learning is a branch of distance education. It can apply to all stages of education but is discussed here in terms of post secondary education especially at universities and colleges. These institutions offer a package of services, teaching, with courses/seminars/laboratories and research. Onsite education provides accommodation and meals plus a whole range of activities such as sports, clubs and various forms of organized and casual social activities. For payment purposes these are all bundled together and some private universities will charge over $50,000 a year for the onsite experience. The parts can now be more easily unbundled and priced separately. Publicly funded universities may cost the student less in terms of fees with the balance paid for from taxation, and sources like foundations.

Universities supply classroom instruction with assignments and laboratories depending on the discipline. These can be offered separately from accommodation and other aspects of student life. And the student’s experience will differ as does taking a correspondence course at home versus on campus with lectures and accommodation. What is likely to change with internet technology is the delivery of the courses, with students able to design the timing and location of their coursework, and arranging to participate in other aspects of student life in ways which may not involve a university or college.

The interaction of students on campus can be replaced in part by online interaction, which some instructors have found to be a positive learning experience for themselves as well as their students. The students teach each other and the instructor becomes aware of what aspects of the instruction need to be improved.

By unbundling the university experience, the students can pick and pay for what they want and can afford. Providing credentials for the courses taken will be an important part of the process, and ultimately the market will decide which courses are worth higher salaries. Even today, the university brand name is most important for the initial job, and after that it depends on a person’s performance.

A frequent comment about online courses is that it is not the same as an on campus experience. Clearly true, but new possibilities open up for those who cannot afford to attend a campus, and for students anywhere in the world who have internet connections. One of the robust findings of development economics is that development is positively correlated with female education. If the same is true for both sexes, then the prospects may be improved for those presently living in poverty.

Universities also provide research output valuable to society. Those faculty capable of producing the best research may not be the best teachers so that experimentation with the technology will be required to provide both outputs.


A business model

Experimentation is underway to develop a business model for online learning. Some like Athabaska University in Northern BC offer only online courses and require students to pay upfront to take the course. Others provide the courses for free, but require payment to take the exam and receive a course credit. If provided by a private firm, the credit may or may not be accepted by an employer, but in at least one instance a university has accepted for credit a privately supplied online course. At the University of Wisconsin students requiring to complete their course credits can take online courses and never attend the university for these in order to gain a degree. Undoubtedly, further models will be tried and a number may turn out to be cost effective as students and universities become familiar with the offerings, and learn from the experiences of others.


One Response to “Online education and distance learning”

  1. homeschool high school Says:

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