Distance learning has been around since the mid 19th century. However, its popularity remained limited for decades. The digital revolution allowed online education to become widely available and accepted. E-learning has now evolved into a multi-billion industry. Here is a look at whether online learning is ready to compete with conventional classroom education.
Understanding online education
The definition of e-learning can be ambiguous since most conventional universities now offer distance learning courses as well. Online education can be considered a form of learning that is primarily dependent on the internet. Connectivity facilitates teacher-student interactions and the distribution of learning materials. Other aspects of e-learning include online administrative protocols, remote assessments of students’ academic performance, and digital certifications as proofs of learning. True online education allows students to study from any location globally (provided there is internet connectivity). Learners need not ever meet face-to-face with teachers.
Online education models
Distance digital education has taken many forms. Online academic courses are programs offered solely via the internet. An example is a degree program offered by the University of the People, USA. Institutions offering such courses need not have any infrastructure in the form of a university campus to host students physically. Yet, students graduate from such programs with formal university degrees.
Hybrid learning is another model which has become very popular since coronavirus. It combines online education and with elements of learning at a physical location. A hybrid degree program at Seneca College Canada is one example. Graduates receive university degrees.
Then there are online skill-acquisition courses. These are highly focused on teaching a particular skill, such as a diploma in web designing from Alison.com. Another format is massive open online courses (MOOCs). Many such courses are offered to a large number of students, usually free of charge. An app development course provided by Treehouse is one example of a MOOC. In both these models, students do not get university degrees. They may or may not receive certificates from the training institutions. The primary outcome is the acquisition of a particular skill by students.
Online learning resources can include apps for computers, mobile devices, administrative portals and services, online discussion forums and chat rooms, e-books, e-libraries, audio, and video-based learning materials, video conferences, recorded lectures, live question and answer sessions, online interviews, online exams, and much more.
Benefits of online education
The runaway popularity of e-learning is justified. The most important advantage of online education is flexibility. Students are allowed to study at their own pace. This is sometimes called ‘asynchronous learning.’ This makes it possible to work and study simultaneously. Millions of migrants worldwide live and work in foreign countries. Their priority is to send money online to support their families with remittances. However, many want to pursue higher learning to improve their earning potential. E-learning is the way to go for these ex-pat professionals. Not all e-learning is asynchronous, however.
Another advantage is being current. Being technology-driven, online education enables educators to incorporate up-to-the-minute trends in the industry. Moreover, students get to learn using the latest communication tools such as group video chats and webinars. By contrast, students in conventional learning systems get less hands-on time with such tools. E-learning eliminates the use of paper. Valuable data is saved digitally and safely, unlike on paper, which is perishable.
Accessibility is also a big advantage. On the internet, aspiring students can choose from the widest range of programs. Finally, online education is known to promote personal development. There is little or no supervision from instructors, which lets students develop self-discipline and good study habits. Some online institutions make online discussion forums compulsory. Interactions on such platforms are a good way to hone networking skills.
How to choose
There are many reasons to opt for online learning. E-learning is a good choice for those who want to take courses that are not available offline. These can be very new, highly specialized, or proprietary courses such as the CCNA. Online education is the top choice for students who want to pursue part-time and self-paced learning. It is ideal for working professionals because of the flexibility of pace and place.
However, offline or conventional modes of learning can still add value. Offline education is relevant for someone who lives in a country where traditional college degrees are valued more at job interviews. Those who require a rigid academic structure or rely on face-to-face guidance will also benefit from offline learning. Some courses do require physical access to libraries and specialized laboratories. No online course can really substitute for performing experiments and witnessing the results firsthand.
Since COVID-19, many offline courses have been shut down. The demand for online learning is driven by availability and the obligation of observing social distancing. A report by Forbes predicts that the e-learning industry will be valued at CAD 412 billion (USD 325 billion) by 2025.
Hemant G is a contributing writer at Sparkwebs LLC, a Digital and Content Marketing Agency. When he’s not writing, he loves to travel, scuba dive, and watch documentaries.