Online Education: Boon or Bane?

NPR’s Morning Edition reported recently on the expansion of public school curricula using online courses. The feature interviewed students and one teacher about their forays into online education. Using a program called Virtual Virginia, students at rural schools like Rappahannock County (VA) High School are supplementing their education with AP courses and other courses such as human geography and mythology. What does this trend mean for traditional education?

Of course, online education isn’t new. Since the launch of the University of Phoenix, online educational opportunities have cropped up all over the Web. EarnMyDegree.com allows you to search the offerings of more than 40 online universities to find a program that suits you–from associate degrees to doctorates. And the offerings aren’t limited to online-only schools like Phoenix and Argosy. Traditional schools are offering more degree programs online than ever–schools like Liberty University, the University of Maryland, and Villanova.

Among K-12 students, homeschoolers have experienced as much benefit from online courses as anyone. Veritas Press, a provider of classical curriculum, now offers a number of courses. So the small school that can’t hire a calculus teacher can offer calculus, and the teenager at home can study Milton.

All this is good, right? Well, maybe. I wonder if such courses do not transcend delivery methods. I wonder if such courses play a role in undermining the communal nature of education. Not that tremendous learning cannot take place when one flies solo. History is full of autodidacts of the first order–Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, to name a couple. And I’ve taught myself a thing or two with books. But something really good happens when a group of students, whatever their age, learn something together. Ideas and interpretations bounce off one another and, under the tutelage of a skilled teacher, what emerges is a powerful synthesis that is impossible to reproduce online.

As someone who really enjoys the Webernet, that’s hard to admit. At one time, I was SOLD on the Web as the future of education. I still think it might be, but I’m not all that happy about it. This is not to say that the Web is not a great medium for delivery. I’m grateful to be able to read books online (though it’s not quite as much fun as holding the book), and to get great music, too. I have learned a lot about my hobbies online, too, things it would have been difficult to learn quickly in real life.

And maybe that’s my greatest trouble with the idea of online learning. It creates an expectation of speed, of ease, that doesn’t really fit with the kind of learning that stays, that settles into your soul and changes you. That kind of learning happens where flesh and bone, and live voices, and the profundity of place converge. And I think those things suffer and die in the harsh light of a computer monitor.

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2 thoughts on “Online Education: Boon or Bane?”

  1. I think depending on the program or the individual you could answer your question either way. I’m currently engaged in a program that offers little interaction outside of e-mail. This has forced me to go and seek opportunities to interact with others and discuss the subject I am studying. I am fortunate to have colleagues nearby with whom I can dialogue. They have provided intellectual stimuli that I would otherwise not experience from my web based program.

    That’s not to say that there are not others who do a good job of integrating both worlds. Many programs (Liberty, Gordon Conwell) have students do a great deal of class work prior to a campus visit. After interacting with faculty and classmates, they return home to assess what they learned in the classroom.

  2. I think your concluding paragraph does an excellent job summing up the problem with online education. Too many schools and students consider online education a solution that will make learning easier and more efficient. (BTW, unfortunately too many schools and parents and students want educational institutions to do the same thing.) But learning online or off-line never happens well when it is easy or efficient. Knowledge comes with blood, sweat, and risk.

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