This is a guest post by Zach Buckley, a recent college graduate who is interested in the intersection of technology, education and online learning.
We all depend on the Internet to make our lives easier in many different ways—whether it’s contacting a friend or finding the nearest sushi restaurant. However, the Internet—along with social media and modern technological devices—has the capacity to enhance our lives in a myriad of ways. Within the World Wide Web lies a virtually infinite supply of answers to our questions and resources of intelligence that offer easy solutions to our everyday problems.
Online education in particular has dramatically changed the nature of higher learning in ways that were inconceivable just a couple of decades ago. Because of recent developments, students who may have otherwise been discouraged from obtaining a higher education now have a world of opportunity at their fingertips.
The Internet as a Leveler for Education
In the past ten years or so, the delineation between strictly online institutions and traditional colleges has begun to shift. The rapid integration of technology in the classroom and growth of online chapters within traditional institutions has made the two educational experiences highly similar. According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual survey, more than 6.1 million students took at least one online class during the fall of 2010, which is a 10.1 percent jump from the previous year. This figure represented an increase for the ninth straight year, indicating that online learning is steadily gaining popularity and credibility for both students and faculty.
Adding more variety to education is a logical action for accommodating the natural variety of talents and intelligences that exists in a given population of students. Contrary to popular belief, traditional colleges are not the only option for students, and right after high school is not the only time that students can attend college. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson argues that we need to completely redefine the way we view education. By recognizing that students need a personalized—rather than standardized—approach to learning, we can foster the development of a broader range of talents and abilities. This revolutionary change would ultimately lead to a better-rounded workforce for the future as well.
For students, online classes bring scheduling convenience and unlimited accessibility to education that would be impossible to achieve in a traditional classroom setting. In a world where many driven students are working hard to manage responsibilities such as a career and a family, online courses are often the only feasible way that a higher education can be achieved.
The Influence of Social Media
Let’s face it: college students spend a lot of time on social media sites. Although social media has the potential to be a huge time waster, it can just as easily foster improved communication between students and their instructors, as well as their classmates. Facebook may not be the best outlet for educational discussion through social media, but fortunately there is a plethora of alternative social media platforms that can be used to the online student’s advantage.
The popular video conferencing platform Skype is now being used in educational institutions all across the country—from kindergarten all the way up through higher education. One of the most popular ways that Skype is being used to improve education is by connecting teachers with students after hours for help on homework assignments and study materials. For online students, this face-to-face verbal interaction is especially helpful for understanding complex academic concepts that may be more difficult to comprehend without a hands-on explanation. Although this is one of the most helpful ways Skype is being used in the classroom, schools are continually coming up with additional creative and educationally beneficial methods for using the medium as well.
Education as a Democracy
Before the advent of online institutions, the structure of higher education closed off opportunities for certain groups of people to obtain a higher degree. Individuals working full-time jobs, raising families and balancing other responsibilities would simply be left out, so higher education was essentially reserved for the few, rather than for everyone with the determination to earn it.
Sometimes busy schedules aren’t even the largest barrier preventing students from acquiring a quality education. Lack of funding and resources can also play a role, as it does in many developing nations. However, by introducing the simplest technologies to these regions, education can be immensely improved. This is evidenced by a recent example reported by Sugata Mitra, an Indian Professor of Technology at Newcastle University who lent technological tools to the people of Hyderabad, India to help them improve their English-speaking skills. These technologies acted as a tool for the people to teach themselves, which is an invaluable concept for countries that may not have as many academic institutions and instructors as the U.S.
Fortunately, the high-tech world we live in today has paved the way for a more democratic educational system, where anyone can work hard to earn a higher degree, regardless of where they came from or the responsibilities they balance in their personal lives.