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Can E-Learning Lead Higher Ed into the Future?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"Who will lead the way for innovation in education?" This is one of the big questions concerning higher education as the 21st century moves into its second decade. In a general sense, it would seem that brick-and-mortar institutions would be at the forefront of such innovation given their resources, easy face-to-face collaboration and infrastructure. The question remains though, are such institutional structures really supportive of innovation or is there a better alternative?

In contrast to traditional higher education, online learning is well-positioned to address shifting paradigms in regards to what education, learning, and knowledge look like in the 21st century. Because it is delivered via the Internet, it is also naturally aligned to the use of innovative technology such as social media, blogs, Wikis and other collaborative tools. Where the real benefit lies however, is in how well-equipped e-learning is to adapt to the rapid pace of technological change in the world.

Change is the Name of the Game
According to Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, in the 21st century we will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of technological change given our current rate of innovation. Imagine 20,000 years of technological change in our children’s lifetimes. How will education, one of the slowest to adapt social systems, possibly keep up with such dramatic change? The answer quite possibly is already here and has begun to evolve to keep pace with this technology fueled acceleration. Online education began in the 1980’s as corporate training and accelerated rapidly with the growth of the Internet in the 90’s to the point where the Sloan Consortium reported that in 2009 one in four college students was taking at least one course online.

So, why the rapid growth of online education? The growth is partially due to changing economic conditions. Online education costs less for all parties involved. Students save on transportation or room and board costs at a minimum, and universities save on some infrastructure/overhead costs amongst others. Another reason for the increased relevance of e-learning is the convenience of taking a class on your own schedule. However, the less obvious, but likely the most important reason is because online education is a natural fit with the hectic pace of the rapidly changing world in which we live.

Beginning with the medium itself, the Internet, virtual learning instantly appeals to individuals who are interested in technology and innovation. Delivering educational content via the Web inspires organizations and individual instructors to be innovators. Engaged online educators have at their fingertips the latest technological advances in information and communication technology, which they can leverage to create a rich 21st century educational experience. An instructor in a brick-and-mortar institution will not automatically have the impetus to utilize technology in the same ways, as their students are not required to sit in front of a computer in order to engage with them or the material. In fact, the rigid structures and educational tradition of the university system often work against such innovation.

As the Internet changes and advances, online education advances along with it. While there may be a lag in adoption of some technologies, online education is driven by private sector advances and drive for efficiency and innovation. The technology itself is usually controlled by business and the ultimate goal of most education is to prepare people to participate in the economy. So it makes sense for online educators to adopt the standards used in business for delivering their instruction and thus acclimating students to the type of work environment that they will enter after graduation. In short, as the technology of the Internet and the business world advances at an ever-accelerating pace, online education will be propelled along with it.

What Does It All Mean?
Change and growth are an inevitable part of the human condition. Technology has accelerated this growth in the last 30 years, and the pace will continue exponentially into the foreseeable future. The change is not only technological though. It is also philosophical and the rapid innovation in technology must ultimately lead to a transformation in the way we learn and create knowledge. Some of these changes are already here with the social construction of knowledge on sites like Wikipedia and crowdsourcing of knowledge production. Other advances will arise going forward and those changes are beyond our control.

Online learning, by the very nature of the medium, is well-positioned to be a driving force in the progress in education needed to keep up with the incredible pace of innovation. While there may be opposing perspectives on the efficacy of the concept, and some recent controversy about the sincerity of some of the better known efforts the overall model still holds great potential and could be one of the best solutions for moving education into the 21st century.

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