Comparing Online Learning & In-Person Learning is Apples & Oranges

Comparing Online Learning & In-Person Learning is Apples & Oranges

The Pew Internet & American Life Project regularly releases fascinating reports on the prevalence and applications of technology in American life and culture. From the number of adults who use Twitter to the popularity of smart phones in different age and ethnic groups, Pew has a handle on how online experiences influence American life.

Yesterday Pew released a report on online learning. Some of the highlights (quoted directly from the report):

The Value of Online Learning. The public and college presidents differ over the educational value of online courses. Only 29% of the public says online courses offer an equal value compared with courses taken in a classroom. Half (51%) of the college presidents surveyed say online courses provide the same value.
The Prevalence of Online Courses. More than three-quarters of college presidents (77%) report that their institutions now offer online courses.
Online Students. Roughly one-in-four college graduates (23%) report that they have taken a class online. However, the share doubles to 46% among those who have graduated in the past ten years. Among all adults who have taken a class online, 39% say the format’s educational value is equal to that of a course taken in a classroom.
The Future of Online Learning. College presidents predict substantial growth in online learning: 15% say most of their current undergraduate students have taken a class online, and 50% predict that 10 years from now most of their students will take classes online.

Only 39% of students who have participated in online classes believe the format’s education value is equal to classroom education? Yikes. We’re comparing apples to oranges.

This data reveals a faulty assumption in the way we treat education: as if it were a live performance. We tend to believe that in-person experiences are superior. From seeing live music, live theater or live sporting events, we assume the digital versions of those events are a second best, a lesser option, the next-best version of the live experience.

But online education isn’t a poor attempt at reproducing the classroom in another format. Online education is more than a virtual classroom: It’s putting the world’s resources at a learner’s fingertips, taking advantage of the opportunity to connect with experts distributed all over the world, experience challenges and choose your own learning adventure.  

Students experiencing online learning can set their own educational experience, access resources freely and flexibly, reach out to their peers, colleagues and leaders in their fields of interest and study anything they want to study. At their own pace, on their own schedule and in a location of their choosing.

The common factor in a university is location. Learners are connected by their place and the resources (professors, researchers, activities) occurring in that space.

The common factors in online learning are interests and ideas. Learners are connected across boundaries by the ideas and interests they share.

In professional learning, students aren’t limited to the topics, instructors or networks they have physical access to: online classes like the massive online open courses (MOOCs) organized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes connect learners to big thinkers and explorers in topics that transcend the boundaries of the workplace or the resources of trainers and experts in your neighborhood.

Online learning is a new future for education. It will never be the only form of education; some skills and ideas will always be best learned in person. But, for the sake of learners, don’t make the mistake of assuming the only and best way to learn is in person. Open your eyes to a new way of learning: online, connected and without boundaries.

Image Credit: Christina Matheson on Flickr