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Going Against the Grain: The Case for Online Education

Online courses allow learning to take place sy...

Online courses allow learning to take place synchronously or asynchronously (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Special to Earthpages.org

Our economy depends on education. Doesn’t matter if the education comes from an online school or a magnet program, the country needs educated youth to continue innovating and making progress. We’re used to thinking of this as a fact of life, an undeniable truth. And in the face of overwhelming challenges, we’ve responded by demanding even more from our schools. Society is asking for more equipped graduates and lots of them, all the while schools are seeing their budgets be slashed. President Obama is currently calling for 1 million additional STEM graduates while governors all over the country lament their need to gut higher education. Naturally, a lot of traditional colleges and universities are struggling under the pressure.

Fortunately, our education system is transforming too. Online college programs represent a chance for schools to catch up with the economy today’s graduates will need to face.

Already, online students make up nearly one-third of all college enrollment in the United States, according to an online education survey by Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. That’s an even more dramatic figure when you consider how quickly it happened: the number of students taking at least one online course has nearly quadrupled since 2002, reaching 6.1 million in 2010. Nearly two-thirds of the chief academic officers interviewed in the survey described online education as “critical” to their institutions’ long-term strategy.

The reasons aren’t hard to guess. When the Internet transforms an industry, it’s usually by offering a combination of specialization and convenience. Online retailers can sell you products that don’t appear on store shelves anywhere in town, and deliver them right to your doorstep. Social networking became an industry in large part thanks to the way the Internet lets people find each other and stay in touch. Online college classes can give part-time students more freedom to manage their schedules or give opportunities to someone who cannot reach the campus.

Unlike most other industries, finding ways to make education more accessible isn’t just a matter of convenience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that your level of education is linked to both your likelihood of having a job and the income you can expect to earn should you land one. The flexibility that online programs can offer fits nicely with a labor force whose workers are likely to change jobs an average of seven times throughout their careers.

Online programs aren’t just working their way into traditional institutions. The word “webinar” is barely twenty years old, but it’s become a simple way for businesses to acquaint their employees with expert instruction. Websites like Skillshare democratize the education process even further by giving anyone a platform to lead a course in whatever subject the market needs. These hyper-specialized options can’t offer graduates the same status as accredited online college classes, but they are a clear sign that the Internet is still finding new innovations to bring to the field.

And the field could use some innovation. The OECD’s education database shows that the number of Americans enrolled in higher education grew by close to seven million over the last decade. Over the same period, households’ expenses on education almost doubled, as state cutbacks led colleges to raise tuition and the outsourcing of low-skilled jobs put more emphasis on specialized training. Americans today have $1 trillion in student loan debt, which is more than credit card debt, and the price of education is still rising.

Taking an online class will not necessarily guarantee a lower tuition rate, but educators in the Babson survey overwhelmingly believed that online courses offered students more flexibility and a better chance to work at their own pace. Those tools can help them hold down a job while earning their degree.

Flexibility can help the universities, too. Those seven million new college students in the OECD report represent a nearly 10% jump in enrollment. For universities to admit more students, they need more housing, classrooms and facilities to accommodate them. However, since about 4.5 million of those new students are enrolled in classes online, universities can save on construction while still providing an education.

Online education has been around nearly as long as the Internet itself. But only recently has ‘online college’ ceased to be synonymous with ‘bad education’. The University of Phoenix, a network of for-profit colleges, began offering online courses in 1989 and is now being held more accountable for what happens to its graduates, this is driving up quality.

What’s really changed in the last decade, and why online classes have begun to blossom, is that the traditional institutions took notice. Prestigious schools, like UC Berkeley, are now offering online resources, many for free. It is a way to ensure people can still learn, even if they cannot make it into a classroom. This should be the future of education, something that utilizes technology to revolutionize society. Online classes have the ability to ensure anyone with Internet access can have a college level education, and an open education system is truly a revolutionary idea.

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