Online education is internet-based education where educational materials are delivered to individuals located in more than one venue and with other terms such as e-learning and distant learning. It is characterized by a separation of teachers and learners through a virtual classroom as opposed to the traditional face-to-face learning, the use of a computer network for the presentation and distribution of the learning materials, and the facilitation of a two-way communication through a computer network for the learners and tutors. Online education is rapidly proliferating especially due to the ever-evolving technological innovations. This is characterized by more students enrolling for online education than those enrolling for the face-to-face interactions hence causing most institutions to quickly adapt by providing alternative courses completed via the internet. This paper will give an in-depth discussion of online education, its history, benefits, challenges that online students face, and the criticisms that the program attracts.
The advent of distant education did not start with computers but rather can be traced back to the 1800s in England by Sir Isaac Pitman. The students especially those in the rural areas engaged in correspondence courses where learning materials would be delivered by mail and their work sent back for criticisms, correction, and grading (Kentnor 5). The students worked independently on the course materials that they received as communications were limited to one-way. Later, correspondence courses spread to other parts of the world such as the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union. Due to the success of distance learning manifested by high enrollment rates, soon educational instructors explored new communication technologies such as radio educational broadcasting, television broadcasting, and later the use of the internet (“Online Education…”). The primary aim was reaching more prospective and continuing students. Online education started and developed in the 1980s with both for-profit and non-profit institutions venturing into online education.
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The basic objective of online education is the provision of educational opportunities for those individuals who have limited access to the traditional educational institutions. These include working people who have limited time to attend a classroom and people who are limited by geographic boundaries. Other institutions of higher learning use online education as an outreach program, which aims at gifted and talented high school students who may want to accelerate and enhance their learning experience but have limited access to outside learning opportunities, individuals who simply want to expand their knowledge on a certain topic, students who have conflicting schedules, when the pace of the traditional classes is too slow for the student, and when advanced information is required for a student to meet the required instructional levels (Siegle 58). Other target audiences include adults who are engaged in life-long learning, individuals who aspire to change their career paths, and students seeking extra help with their current courses.
There are a host of benefits attributed to online education. The first one is flexibility and convenience for students. Originally, the online learning programs were aimed at adults who due to their other commitments such as work and families, were unable to attend the traditional classes in the university. This enables students to complete entire degrees while still working, while-in-between jobs or while taking time to nurture young children or elderly parents and relatives. In most cases, an individual wishing to complete a college degree does not necessarily desire to leave their current employment (Jaggars 6). The ability to work and learn simultaneously enables students to take care of college costs as well as other personal expenses. The convenience is in terms of enabling the student to study at their most convenient time, place, and at their own pace. This way students are not pressured to leave early from work in order to attend classes, wake up early in order to fight traffic, miss out on important family occasions due to classes, or miss out classes due to bad weather or transportation limitations. This convenience is also extended to individuals with disabilities or those battling health problems that may prevent them from getting out often. The students are therefore able to plan their study time around the rest of their day as opposed to the other way around.
Another advantage is its cost effectiveness. Although it not guaranteed that online education’s tuition fees are cheaper, the associated costs are less as compared to the traditional courses. For the student, the costs are reduced in terms of commuting expenses and purchase of supplementary learning materials such as textbooks as these are freely available online. For institutions, online courses are operational cost effective as it only requires the development of a network infrastructure, training manuals, and videos.
While there are so many things right with online education, the program is not without challenges. A virtual classroom allows an instructor to reach thousands of students at the same time. While this may be a good thing, it is practically impossible for the instructor to interact with each student at an individual level as opposed to a traditional classroom that has an attentive teacher providing timely comments. In addition, the student-student interactions are minimal, which may lead to student isolation.
Another challenge is the technological competencies required. Both the students and the tutors require technological capabilities, which include the ability to source for quality materials and engage in a virtual classroom for the former group and ability to transfer traditional course materials online, development of an online interactive environment, and the ability to use software and updates for the latter group. Inadequacies in these areas may lead to technical frustrations hence dampening the motivation of all involved.
It is evident that online education has become mainstream rather than a mere trend regardless of its perceived challenges. The program has opened up numerous opportunities for individuals who in normal circumstances would find it challenging to enroll for a course through shortening the commuting period to simply walking over to a computer, enabling a student to work at their peak hours, engage in other activities and responsibilities such as careers and family while studying, and allowing frequent travelers to study regardless of their geographic locations. This has opened up opportunities for nearly everyone to go back to school and earn their degrees, gain more information, or polish their technical skills. The program is learner-centered, allowing the learner to take control of their learning experience.
- Jaggars, Shanna, Choosing Between Online and Face‐to‐Face Courses: Community College Student Voices, n. d. Web Jan 31, 2017. <https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/online-demand-student-voices.pdf>
- Kentnor, Hope, Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning in the United States. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 17: 1(2015) 2.
- “Online Education: Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection”. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. 2015. Web Jan 31, 2017. <http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ReferenceDetailsPage/DocumentToolsPortletWindow?displayGroupName=Reference&action=2&catId=GALE%7C00000000LVY5&documentId=GALE%7CPC3010999233&userGroupName=mlin_n_wsparker&zid=abdfceff78d368b63e1bea4113fe75af>
- Siegle, Del. The Changing Nature of Universities: Going Online. Gifted Child Today, 34:4(2011) 56-61.