Online education – Will it revolutionise delivery of education?

A recent study on online education for the US Department of Education has concluded that “On average, students in online learning conditions perform better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The study was based on comparative research from 1996 – 2008; some of which was in the K-12 settings. The analysts found that, on average, students doing some or all of their courses online ranked in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile.

The difference in performance although modest is statistically significant. As per Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist “The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction”.

Until fairly recently, online education amounted to little more than electronic versions of the old-line long-distance courses. In the more recent past, universities (especially in the developed countries) have adapted their in-class teaching material and made it available in online format (some of it for free or nominal cost). Universities — and many K-12 schools — now widely use online learning management systems, but that is mostly used for posting assignments, reading lists, class schedules and hosting some Web discussion boards.

While initial attempts in e-learning were not inspiring, the pace of progress has been rapid and encouraging. Enhancements in digital software, e-learning tools and learning management platforms have changed the quality and utility of online education. The arrival of social media, Web-based video, instant messaging and collaboration tools have radically altered the way participants of the online education environment interact with and learn from each other. The absence of collaboration and interaction, which had traditionally been the main drawback of online education is in-fact now posed to be its fundamental source of strength; as online education has the potential of providing an enriching collaborative environment by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

So, what are the implications of this for in-class education?

The development of online education is expected to evolve fairly rapidly, accelerated by the increasing use of social networking technology which will create new and innovative learning communities among students. The real promise of online education is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms and enabling more “learning by doing,” which many students find more engaging and useful.

Online education is already showing healthy trends in freeing education from the four walls of the classroom; and can be expected to increasingly take things out of the classroom. It is not entirely inconceivable that, in the not so very distant future, technology will be able to simulate a classroom environment – while contributing significant benefits of its own – which would make the physical presence of a school a thing of past. If this were to happen, the first casualties would be the less than “A” grade teachers and educational institutions.

For another perspective on this topic, see my blog dated June 12, 2009