By Eric Garneau
The first and probably most important issue proponents of Internet education must deal with is the usefulness of the information available. No one would doubt that there's a basically indigestible amount of material available on the Internet, but how much of it is worthwhile? Can any of it rival the authority of the knowledge you'd gain inside university walls?
As it turns out, yes! It's just a question of where you look. Thanks to the burgeoning Open CourseWare (OCW) movement, motivated self-learners can access a wealth of information straight from respectable university sources. Some pundits believe that even sites like Wikipedia are or will soon be sources of valid, dependable academic information. Realistically, you can probably find almost anything you want to know on the World Wide Web.
But how do you find the content you desire? How easily can you access it? This may perhaps end up being the key question of online education. In fact, because of the glut of information available on the Internet, this issue becomes all the more pertinent: how do you tell good content from bad? Where do you start searching? There are a few sites with massive repositories of free educational information, such as the Khan Academy or MIT's Open CourseWare, but without any kind of instructional standard, how will those seeking an education online know to go there? Until the movement coalesces into a unified whole, a lot of that seems up to chance.
Additionally, the question of access doesn't just concern how easy it is to find something using Google. Rather, we might wonder how readily people from around the globe can go online and find the educational material they want. What kind of access issues exist for non-traditional learners? If we want education to continue to be a great democratizer, after all, the Internet should prove a great ally.
Unfortunately, Internet access isn't quite the democratic institution it ought to be; various restrictions around the world hinder individuals trying to view its knowledge. For instance, in China the government controls its citizens' access to Web resources, only letting them visit certain sites deemed 'safe' by authorities. Even without such an extreme circumstance, it's possible that a class divide exists in Internet education just as it does in brick-and-mortar schools. Those with more money might have an advantage when it comes to owning tools that afford better Web access. For instance, much has been made about the possibility of mobile learning, but right now the mobile smartphones and tablet PCs required for it aren't exactly something everyone can purchase (although some experts think that may change in the next ten years). Still, for people who can readily access websites, an online education does seem a good deal more economically feasible than earning a traditional degree.
Sadly, for online education to become a legitimate competitor with universities, Internet students are going to need a way to prove what knowledge they've attained - they'll need, basically, the equivalent of a degree. As it happens, Web giant Mozilla's currently working on such a thing. Through their Open Badges platform, they hope to provide a universally recognizable way for Internet learners to prove their proficiencies in a variety of subjects. Though there's not necessarily any guarantee that these will be seen as official credentials on par with college degrees, it may just be a matter of time before that becomes the case.
An Excellent Resource
There are no doubt enough positives to online learning that motivated students really could get an education that rivals a traditional college degree. Besides the sheer breadth of information, we ought to consider perhaps some less apparent benefits. Students who are too timid to speak up in a classroom, for instance, might instead find themselves more comfortable in a collaborative online setting. Similarly, the Internet also makes it easier to organize pretty much everything - the instant communication allowed by e-mail and social networking sites means that you could potentially get a group of like-minded, dedicated learners together to work on a project in no time at all.
Of course, traditional classrooms and e-learning aren't mutually exclusive. Indeed, in some situations they might complement each other quite handily. But enough students find themselves struggling with the money or time college requires that it makes sense to consider an Internet-only education as a viable alternative. We may not yet be ready to embrace that reality fully, but it seems there's a pretty good chance it's coming soon.
Why do some professors advocate an online education?