Where is Online Education Going?

December 31st, 2012


You may be surprised to learn that “distance learning” is not a new pedagogical technique. What could be described as “correspondence courses” date to the early 18th century, and the University of London offered distance learning degrees more than 150 years ago.

Today, technology has taken the concept to new levels of ubiquity, not to mention credibility. Real-time, synchronous interactions—both instructor–student and student–student—make the experience almost indistinguishable from the actual classroom equivalent. On-line education therefore makes earning an advanced degree (or even just learning more about a given subject) much more practical for millions around the globe.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011, “From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of undergraduates enrolled in at least one distance education class expanded from 8 percent to 20 percent, and the percentage enrolled in a distance education degree program increased from 2 percent to 4 percent.”

Helping people understand what UTOPIA’s fiber broadband helps people do is one way we explain the reason for the network. In this case, having reliable, robust Internet from UTOPIA—which can handle streaming video even during peak usage hours—can make on-line education a viable choice.

And that will only be truer in the coming years. A recent article in The Economist suggests that many more will make that choice in the future. Consider:

  • In April 2012, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller of Stanford launched Coursera. It now has 2 million students.
  • Sebastian Thrun, also of Stanford, launched Udacity in January 2012. It now has 475,000 users.
  • Harvard and MIT are launching edX to offer online courses from Ivy League universities.
  • As The Economist reports, “Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovative University, predicts ‘wholesale bankruptcies’ over the next decade among standard universities.”
  • “The cost per student in America has risen at almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983. For universities beset by heavy debts, smaller taxpayer subsidies and a cyclical decline in enrolment, online courses mean better tuition, higher graduation rates and lower-cost degrees. New technology also gives the innovative a chance to shine against their rivals.”
  • “Ms Koller of Coursera muses that a single virtual classroom may one day seat 1.5m. Thousands of minds mingle in moderated discussion forums, where learners in Peru, Finland or Japan can speedily reply to a struggling student’s question, highlight points that are unclear, and even grade each others’ work.”
  • Thrun “predicts that in 50 years there will be only ten universities left in the world.”

While we will not make any such bold predictions, one thing is certain: the technology supporting this effort will continue to evolve. What is possible now with a national broadband average of 6.7 Mbps (download) will look positively old school when the average approaches and exceeds 50 Mbps, in both directions. UTOPIA is leading the way.