Online Learning – some initial thoughts


A MOOC, offered by Coursera (, entitled The Future and History of Mainly Higher Education provides an introduction to how developments in information technology are affecting the way education and its delivery is viewed by those who specialize in and study this topic. The issues discussed are not only the impact of the internet and associated sites like Wikipedia and blogs but how email, Facebook, Twitter and social media influence what we do and how we do it as it relates to education. The historical approach provides information about what has and has not worked in the past, while the future reviews how current conditions may be improved.

A second theme of the MOOC is to contrast top-down learning, the sage on the stage, to more collaborative forms of learning where those being taught may provide input to both what is taught and how it is taught. What may be new to older generations, like myself, is the extent to which students are expected to provide such input. While graduate and undergraduate students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, where this MOOC is located, may, because of screening for admission, have the knowledge to provide useful input, I would have doubts about whether less qualified students would be able to contribute much, and especially students at junior and high school levels.

Cases discussed of where students have and are providing input to the structure and operation of classes are impressive, but I suspect they are few in number, and as suggested involve students who have been screened for the caliber of their educational achievements. This is a minor quibble with what is a highly stimulating course. For me it was worth listening to the online lectures a second time as well as reading the referenced material.


Economics of online learning

How are institutions (schools, colleges and universities) affected by online developments? Consider first the case of university students – for college students it would be similar.

For an on campus experience, the main costs are fees, books and equipment, living costs, borrowing costs and foregone income if the student would otherwise have a job. Savings may be made by living at home, working part-time during the school year and working during vacations. The expense of an education is an investment in the future and financial institutions will provide loans which can be repaid when earnings commence. For those planning on entering a profession, loans are easily obtained, and the transaction is similar to obtaining a mortgage to purchase a house.

Time is saved by a student attending an online class as opposed to travelling to and from the lecture room. Reading materials may be available online and at a cost lower than by purchasing these items. Interaction online may take place between those enrolled in the class and with the instructor, so that the learning experience is improved. Of course, something is missing, the face-to-face relationships between students and between students and instructors. The social and perhaps cultural aspect of university attendance is lost by online learning. But there can be all kinds of hybrid alternatives where online displaces only some of the on campus experience, and today’s students are active users of social media.

In the case of the institutions, costs will depend on the extent of the changes and the mix (blend) of online and onsite lectures offered. Graduate courses and those requiring face-to-face seminars and lab work will still require onsite facilities. Some institutions are moving to online only which means that they will not offer courses which require an onsite presence. Much experimentation is underway. There will probably be high fixed capital costs in the initial move to online offerings, but these will be spread over the years. Savings will be possible with operating, especially salary, costs if less instructors are required. Technical and administrative staff will have to be trained to manage and run the new types of online offerings. Fewer buildings may be required.

This is a quick look at some of the factors in the costs of online learning. Institutional experimentation is underway, and has been for some time. The results will provide data for a clearer assessment of the future. Doubtless, governments will pressure institutions to make cost saving changes.


Where to look for data on online learning?

Wikipedia is an obvious starting point both for the numbers involved and for the types of experiments under way. Following are a few published facts (Babson Survey Research Group):

  1. In 2013, of the 21.3 million students enrolled in higher education in the US, one-third is enrolled online.
  2. Since 2003, annual growth in online enrollment has varied between 35% and 5%, higher in the earlier period and 5% in 2012.
  3. Sixty-six percent of chief administrative officers think that online is critical to the long term strategy of the institution.
  4. E-learning, a general term which includes online courses, started in 1960 at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. The Open University in the UK opened in 1969, while in Canada the University of Guelph was an early entrant. Correspondence courses predate the online variety.

A search of Wikipedia for online learning takes you to e-learning with extensive discussion and references to issues associated with online learning. There is also a Journal of Online Learning and a World Association of Online Learning.


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