27 February of 2014

E-learning: the end of education as we know it?

by Tiril Beatrix Uglum

Is e-learning taking the place of modern day education? (Courtesy of: Tyler Epperson)

The tapping of fingers on keyboards and faces lighting up by the glow of laptops and tablets; this is the modern day classroom.

With the invention of new technologies, online education is no longer a last resort for offering education to students living in remote locations. E-learning has now become a global form of education. E-learning is the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in learning and education. Many educational institutions use an e-learning platform to gather communication, information and hand-ins. In addition to these platforms, there are other kinds of e-learning such as distance learning and virtual classrooms.

Open online courses: Coursera
One branch that has taken e-learning one step further are the massive open online courses, also called MOOCs. A site that provides these courses is Coursera, an education platform that partners with top universities worldwide. Coursera offers a wide range of free online courses (over 600 courses in total). Andrew Ng, Coursera co-founder and Stanford professor, explained in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman for the New York Times that when teaching a Coursera class, he would reach as many students in one year as he would need 250 years to reach when teaching a Stanford class.

Overview of the Coursera growth from the beginning  (Courtesy: Tiril Beatrix Uglum)

Overview of the Coursera growth from the beginning
(Courtesy: Tiril Beatrix Uglum)


Quality assurance
The biggest issue with Coursera becoming – as they claim they will – the future of education is quality assurance. Coursera offers no degrees. Some courses are offered with a verified certificate. For these courses you have to pay a fee. Can peer assessment, the evaluation form that Coursera practices, be reliable? In her Forbes article ‘Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?’ Susan Adams discusses the impact Coursera and MOOCs in general can have on traditional education. The student-teacher relationship is prominent in regular educating, but where is its place in e-learning? This relationship is fading in e-learning. Besides that, a teacher and professor are hired based on their academic expertise. The confidence we have in them as an educator and thus in the institution to which they belong, stems from this expertise. It’s what they teach, but perhaps equally important the assessment they make of the students’ academic abilities, that is shown in the final result. Can peer assessment succeed this as a form of evaluation?

Cost efficiency
For corporations the financial aspect of e-learning is important. Kineo, a global workplace learning company, is an example of such a corporation. There are many similarities to the objectives listed by Coursera, but cost efficient solutions are naturally a key point. Ernst & Young is one of their success cases. The company condensed 2900 hours of classroom training into 700 hours of web training, 200 hours of distance learning and 500 hours of classroom learning. An online training program will in most cases be more cost efficient than an in classroom session, with paid staff. For a large corporation the financial saving that e-learning introduces will often weigh up for the possible downsides to outsourcing education to the internet.


The result of introducing e-learning to Ernst & Young  (Courtesy: Tiril Beatrix Uglum)

The result of introducing e-learning to Ernst & Young
(Courtesy: Tiril Beatrix Uglum)


A replacement?
When discussing Coursera’s place in the future market of education, Adams points to the fact that if Coursera becomes the new dominant form of education, some qualities cannot be replaced. In addition to the quality of the academics, she mentions the social aspects of education as an equally important factor. The maturation process that happens during student life, comes from interacting with other students who are also growing and learning. This is an important part of the socialization process, and if not experienced it could have significant consequences.

How to study; iPad or notebook?  (Curtsey: Sean MacEntee)

How to study; iPad or notebook?
(Curtsey: Sean MacEntee)


Quality over quantity
In their overview of benefits, Kineo lists several advantages to e-learning as opposed to classroom learning. The ability to reach a large amount of people and the cost efficiency are two of the main points. In addition to these we have the fact that e-learning makes for less time lost to social interaction. Here we have to go back to Adams article and the question of socializing versus effective knowledge assessment. Is the increased efficiency such a dominantly positive aspect to e-learning, that it can overrule other aspects? When these points are the main focus, quantity can easily trump quality. It is therefore crucial not to overlook the importance of socialising and the building of potentially life changing and important relationships, which could fall behind. E-learning is a powerful and multidimensional tool, but it is just that; a tool, not a replacement.


Header photo by: Tyler Epperson



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