by Guest Blogger Linda Zabriski
There is little doubt that the internet space is changing course of higher education. Not only can students and teachers communicate with each other in new ways, but courses and even degrees can be completed entirely online. These benefits do not come without some challenges, however. One of the main questions that people in the world of education and academia are currently asking is this: What effect will the growing trend of online education have on education and on society at large? In most cases, the discussion revolves around three basic issues: education availability, education quality, and general economics.
When it comes to matters of availability, the benefit of online education is clear. The online space is a very easy way to bring university education to any and all corners of the world. Wherever there is an internet connection, there can be a classroom. Some programs are simply lectures that can be downloaded, but others involve wholly electronic textbooks, quizzes, tests, virtual classrooms, and discussion platforms. Students who might not otherwise be able to travel to a campus for daily lectures can nevertheless harness the benefits of a college education from their computer.
There are also significant cost considerations when it comes to online learning. Universities typically save a lot of money by moving classes to the internet. In most cases, teachers can save time with automated assignment submission and grading tools. This enables them to teach more classes, or spend more time coaching students on specific issues. Schools also do not need to provide physical classroom and office space. As a result, institutions are often able to offer courses to a wider range of students at a minimized variable cost. Together, the low cost and high scalability result in the ability to educate more people.
Some academics question whether the shift to online education is actually good for higher education. One of the main criticisms is that the growing ubiquity of online schooling may lead to an erosion in value. For example, a Harvard Ph.D. is a very prestigious degree in today’s market. If Harvard started offering the same degree online to anyone willing to complete the requirements, its perceived market value would drop dramatically due to increased supply alone. The same extrapolation holds true for all college degrees more generally: the more there are, the less value each holds individually.
The “real” value of a degree could also drop for a number of other reasons unrelated to saturation. First, cheating is often easier through online study, as much of the coursework and testing can be done without any kind of identity verification. Second, the go-at-your-own-pace model that online courses tend to follow cannot be compared to the rigorous study and assignment schedules that students at traditional universities follow. Third, while some aspects of education are better online, others are simply impossible through an online platform. For example, in a biochemistry course, online students may be able to read textbooks, watch videos, and take tests, but they have no access to a laboratory, which is essential to truly learning about reactions and chemical characteristics. Some of these issues may be ameliorated by continuing technological development, but others will never be fully addressed. Particularly in the sciences, more traditional methods of education are unlikely to ever disappear completely.
Online education’s changes to higher learning are likely to trickle through to society in general, raising a separate set of questions. One frequently raised concern is the possibility that, by making education more available and more affordable, society will have too many people with degrees. From a general economic standpoint, however, increasing the number of people with degrees is almost always a good thing -- so long as those degrees reflect an actual increase in education, and so long as their attainment does not burden the market with massive amounts of student loan debt. If educational institutions do what they can to maintain a certain standard of quality online, internet-based education can certainly help to deliver a better, brighter future for everyone.