Online Education, pt.2: Is This the Future?

Will College Professors Soon be Obsolete?

This hub is a response to the link on the right. If you click on the link, it will take you to a short article about an online course on artificial intelligence recently taught by two professors at Stanford. At this point, the course is still in its experimental phases, and it cannot be taken yet for college credit. But given the fact that 58,000 students registered for the course, the results so far are promising to say the least. Some believe that courses like this will soon become the norm in education, with college teachers (such as me) and the traditional college classroom increasingly becoming a thing of the past. After all, if two teachers can reach thousands, people from throughout the world can save themselves the trouble of traveling to a single location, and the infrastructure costs of maintaining a university can be eliminated, then why wouldn’t this new form of education take over?

Given the rapid advancement of computer speed, software sophistication, and broadband internet technology, online education may be the wave of the very near future. And the university system, which has existed in one form or another for one thousand years, may finally become a relic. But I’m not convinced that it is quite dead yet. If education consisted merely of the transmission and absorption of information, then the traditional classroom should have died out some time ago. The printing press, in fact, should have spelled the beginning of the end. Once a textbook written by a single person could be mass produced and eventually transported over a wide area, this single individual could now be the teacher of thousands. People could then absorb the necessary information and show up somewhere to take some sort of standardized exam to prove that they had fulfilled the requirements for an academic degree. Due to the tremendous increase of written information available, there was no longer any need to sit in a classroom and listen to professors give their “performances” live.

Now some would argue that reading textbooks is a very different experience from taking an online course. Online courses can utilize a wide range of different types of media, give students a means of personally interacting with the material, and tap into the virtually infinite amount of information available on the worldwide web. They also create a medium through which a large number of students can interact and enhance one another’s learning. It is therefore a much more interactive and vibrant experience than reading a textbook could ever be. But when you come right down to it, an online course, and the internet in general, is still a glorified (and highly enhanced) textbook. Ultimately, the main thing that the internet provides is convenience. Search engines, as the name indicates, save us the trouble of traveling to stores, going through libraries, and going to social gatherings where we might have to physically interact with other people. It essentially saves us the time and trouble of doing research and gives us much more to choose from than ever possible in the world before the Information Age.

This amazing technology, however, like the printing press, has not quite replaced the experience of student/teacher interaction. As at the beginning of human history, there is still no educational experience quite like the direct interaction between two human beings. In my mind, this is part of the reason for the growing popularity of home schooling. There is no better way to personalize education, and no better student/teacher ratio, than one-on-one. One of the biggest frustrations for any teacher, after all, is the difficulty of adapting lesson plans to suit the individual needs, learning styles, and ability levels of students. And the larger the class size, the bigger the challenge. Computer software, of course, can be a tremendous resource in creating a wide range of interactive lesson plans designed to meet the needs of a variety of students. The internet can also create a much more efficient communication system between teachers and students (and classmates), making it possible for a single teacher to find time to interact personally with a much larger number of students than before. But you still need a human being to interact with the students, and there are only so many hours in a day. So if a teacher takes on courses with either hundreds or thousands of students, meaningful human interaction becomes impossible, no matter how fancy the technology.

The other basic problem with teaching an online course consisting of thousands of students is developing some meaningful system of evaluation. As stated earlier, if education consisted merely of the absorption of facts, this would not be an issue. In fact, the invention of machines that could grade multiple-choice, bubble forms would have solved this problem decades ago. If it was not necessary for me to grade handwritten papers from students, I could easily teach courses to thousands of students in giant auditoriums. But all teachers know that bubble forms cannot evaluate higher level thinking skills. We often resort to them, however, because we have too many students in our classes. And just as we often resort to in-class tests rather than out-of-class projects in order to insure that the students themselves are actually doing the work, it may be necessary in the internet courses of the future to force students to show up to a physical room every now and then in order reduce the rampant cheating made possible by “virtual classrooms.” (Or we could just allow educational institutions to monitor students with some form of security cameras.)

Now there may come a time when software is developed that can grade term papers and essay exams (and do more than simply search for the basic facts).There may also come a time when computer software can develop lessons plans, respond to student questions, communicate enthusiasm for a subject, and model high-level thinking skills at a level that no human being can match. And this software may even be able to replicate all of the intangible, right-of-passage experiences that people associate with attending colleges. Maybe someday the Stanford experience, and all of the personal contacts that are made by attending such a prestigious university, will be fully replicated by a Stanford professor’s online course. But we are not quite there yet.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that teaching is a more sophisticated task than often advertised. Modern technology is a tremendous resource, and teachers who fail to tap into it would be as foolish as past educators who refused to take advantage of the printing press. But until software with true artificial intelligence, personality, intuition, and empathy is developed, there will still be a place, either in classrooms or in front of computer screens, for flesh and blood educators. And if software is ever developed that can do everything necessary to teach a class effectively, then there won’t be many jobs left for any of us human beings. We can just sit back and let the robots do everything, at least until the plots of the “Terminator” or “Matrix” films unfold. But if there are any robots out there already who are capable of taking over my job, please write me an essay, without any direct human aid, discounting my little human attempt at an essay and proving your qualifications. I will then step aside, beg you for a job as a teacher’s aide, and most likely ride off into the sunset (in my car that drives itself).

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Comments 17 comments

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Very well articulated. I do think there are times, places, and situations where on-line courses are necessary and beneficial. But there is much learning that occurs inside of a classroom where students and teachers can speak directly to each other. I have done both...there is a big difference. I appreciate your essay and I applaud your efforts. Sharing.


Karmallama profile image

Karmallama 4 years ago from St. Paul, minnesota

Good hub . I graduated from an online school and I can say at times it would have helped (in tougher subjects for me) but that majority of the time I think I appreciated having the free schedule of online classes. I think that online education is indeed the future


MicheleFrazier profile image

MicheleFrazier 4 years ago from Texas

Online courses are useful but I don't believe "real" teachers will ever be replaced completely. There are some things that just don't translate well to an online platform.


spoonage profile image

spoonage 4 years ago from New Jersey

In one of his last interviews with Bill Moyers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CwUuU6C4pk), Isaac Asimov imagined the personal computer/the internet as the great education equalizer, an open-source world-library where any dedicated student could learn what he wanted when he wanted for free. In many ways, he was right. There has never been a better time in history for the truly motivated to become truly educated.

With that said, it, like anything else touted as the wave of the future, is not a panacea for the many problems in education and cannot be successful purely on its own (not that many are touting it as such). There are plenty of students that online courses are a good idea for; but let's not start firing all (well, more) the teachers yet. We might still need them.


Mohammad.Wasim 4 years ago

On line education or learning is always appreciated. On line education brings a great revolution in the field to educate people in the world. People can concentrate and save unnecessary expenses in on line teachings. people those who have no opportunity or arrangement or get no admission any where for further education. On line will brings colour in their life to provide education.

One day , on line education will be the comprehensive way of education. Shake hand for great future in On line education.


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

I don't personally feel that online education can ever be as good as real schools and universities. A large part of the pleasure and utility of our current system is that it gives students an opportunity to meet and interact with their peers in a real flesh and blood setting. Education isn't just about learning. It's also about socialising. And that will always be best done face-to-face.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Yes, if education was simply about absorbing content, then schools could have been done away with some time ago.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

You might be right. But I think that there are certain elements of education that don't translate online, namely learning how to interact socially with others.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

The internet is an amazing resource, but even before it came along, dedicated students could educate themselves. Unfortunately, not all students are dedicated, and our society decided some time ago that it was important to make an effort to educate everyone. So unless we give up on the notion of compulsory education, we may still need an education system and teachers to force students to learn things whether they like it or not.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

As I said in the hub, maybe the greatest resource that the internet provides is convenience.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Thank you. I tend to think that the internet can be a great supplement to classroom teaching, but not necessarily a replacement.


MicheleFrazier profile image

MicheleFrazier 4 years ago from Texas

It is a great supplement. I'm thankful we have this option available. Of course, there are those who think that if they just show up they're going to be able to skate through classes, just as if it was a "live" classroom. There's always at least one in each class. I think that the people who truly want to learn are the ones who make the effort to participate and interact with the rest of the class and the professor. The ones who don't aren't going to get very far in college or in life.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

Our college is heading towards online courses. It does have it's advantages for students and teachers. However, as you stated, the human application is what makes the difference. There are some topics that need personal interaction in order to successfully grasp the concepts.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Michele, yes, the same principles that lead to success online apply to being successful in any educational environment. I tend to think that online education is best suited for self-motivated, independent people. The problem is that people may lose the capacity to interact with other humans face to face if education shifts completely online, a problem that applies to society in general in the age of social networking.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

teaches, I agree. Unfortunately, I think that economic motives may drive future trends in education more than the desire to provide the best education possible. And as you said, the ability to interact with others in person may suffer.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Freeway - Still a great hub, just as it was the first time I read it. I have all kinds of opinions based on my experience, the experience of colleagues, and the experience of some of my students, but I don''t have an hour to write, or you to read. :)

So I will comment on one thing. In the previous comment you stated that "the ability to interact with others in person may suffer." I think this is absolutely correct. But here is another twist.

I have a colleague who gushes about how wonderful on line teaching is because within the two-hour discussion module (2 x a week) set up for her course, "Why, every student participates at least once and some of them 2 or 3 times! The anonymity protects them I guess, and besides, I can't get 10% of the class to participate face to face in a classroom."

OK. (1) She thinks she is a good teacher and she can't get more than 10% of the students to respond? That is a major problem and it has nothing to do with on-line or off-line education. If my response rate was that low I would know there was a problem, I would know it was me, and I would high-tail it to some of the master teachers I know for guidance, help, and direction.

(2) Well yes, promise them anonymity and people will do all kinds of things, many of them inappropriate, some obscene, and some illegal. I am not sure what the great value in anonymous education is.

(3) Most of her students are heading for positions and careers in the business world. For heavens sake, what good are we doing them by ignoring the fact that they will probably "have to deal with people face to face" when we give them A's and B's in courses designed so that they never have the opportunity to interact with anyone personally. Who in the world thought this was a smart idea?

Now, I should add, that certainly there are disciplines and jobs where you primarily interact with books, paper, pencils and not so much with people: bookkeeper, accountant, molecular biologists, chemical engineer, etc. But the great majority of jobs involve either interaction with the public or with other company employees. This is another aspect of online education that troubles me.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Amen. Your comment could easily be converted into a great hub. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. They help to keep alive my faith in humanity. And hopefully, we humans will not forget over the next few decades how to interact with one another face to face.

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