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Will Online Learning Replace the Classroom?

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In a time when most American toddlers are as comfortable with a touchscreen as with a crayon, one would be remiss to think that the current classroom-based model of education will survive as is. Change is most evident in higher education, where massive open online courses (MOOCs) account for a growing share of academic content, but exactly how much disruption can we expect from online learning?

Web-based education technology has seen both promising and lackluster results in terms of adoption and course completion rates; however, online education proponents assure us that the traditional classroom is on the cusp of a dramatic change.

The imminent IPO of 2U, an online education company that partners with colleges and universities, is a vote of confidence for the ed tech space. Filing to raise up to $100 million, 2U's primary underwriters include Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse. 2U already partners with such reputable institutions as Berkeley, USC, Georgetown and American University, remotely offering "online learning experiences that match or exceed the quality and rigor found on campus."

The Benefits of Online Learning

Internet-based platforms have empowered us to replace or remotely facilitate many historically interactive processes -- like shopping, dating and banking. Attaining an education might be the next frontier for web-based expediency, and there's a host of reasons why:

• Affordability: Over 300 lecture hours at Berkeley, Harvard and MIT are available, for free, on YouTube. MOOCs are designed to be free for participants and open to anyone, and other online learning platforms are made inexpensive for the end user. The online medium is scalable because of its reduced overhead compared with brick-and-mortar schools.

• Convenience: Allowing students to take courses on their own time, at their own pace, online learning systems are far more convenient than their in-person counterparts. Forums and online communities built around courses add to the usability of these distance education programs.

• Accessibility: For-profit colleges were early adopters of online learning ,since it allowed them to attract customers who were otherwise unlikely to attend any sort of higher education. MOOCs and other online classes attract and retain a diverse mix of student backgrounds, geographies, experiences and motivations.

• Customizability: Online education affords students greater flexibility to choose when, where, what, how and how much they learn. "Learners are in control," said Andrew Ho of Harvard's Graduate School of Education after an analysis of working papers on Harvard and MIT's joint EdX program, involving 841,687 registrants in 17 open online courses. Students were found to have varied reasons for taking EdX MOOCs; some were just hoping to learn, some were looking for resources to aid in other classes they were taking, and others were teachers seeking insights on how to teach their own classes.

• Preparation: Future employers will prefer job candidates who are familiar with dynamic learning, says Thunderbird Online. A self-serving assertion coming from the online education provider, no doubt, but if we consider the fact that online learning is increasingly implemented as a training tool in corporations, the argument might already ring true.

In their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, co-authors Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn argue that America's lack of innovation in the classroom is to blame for this nation's students underperformance in comparison with other countries' students. The fix? Customized learning through technological innovation.

A Long Way to Go, According to the Numbers

In 2012, more than 6.7 million students took at least one online course, representing an all-time high of 32 percent of higher education students. The Babson Study, which assembled these data, reports that this 9.3 percent year-over-year enrollment growth rate is the lowest in the history of the 10-year series, but it's still higher than the overall enrollment rate in higher education.

Despite a record high in online enrollment, the EdX analysis conducted by MIT and Harvard revealed some surprising attrition rates. Of the learners in the study, 95 percent of students dropped their online class before getting a completion certificate. But researchers Andrew Ho and Isaac Chuang say these low completion rates are not cause for concern; indeed they are a misleading metric. Ho said, "A better criterion for success might be for students to complete more of the course than they thought they would, or to learn more than they might have expected." More productive key takeaways were the diversity of registrants, the apparent interest of non-traditional learners, and the innovation that results from this type of experimentation.

The Babson Research Study revealed that academic leaders are undecided about MOOCs as a sustainable method for offering courses, with most (45.2 percent) being neutral, and the remainder evenly split between the two opposing opinions. Less than three percent of higher education institutions currently offer a MOOC. While 69.1 percent of chief academic officers claim that online learning represents a critical part of their long-term strategy, only 9.4 percent are in the planning stages of implementing a MOOC, suggesting that other types of online education are expected to emerge in colleges and universities.

E-Learning for Non-Traditional Education

Online learning has seen an uptick in usage outside of higher education. For example, YouTube, replete with tutorial videos, now has a "how to" for everything from getting killer abs and doing magic tricks to tying bow-ties and achieving the perfect smoky eye. More formal web-based courses are available in countless sectors. Online learning modules are helping, at least in part, to prepare an entire clean energy workforce with solar installation training, energy auditing courses, and LEED accreditation courses, among others. Online certificate programs make it easy to attain credentials in areas like crime scene investigation and medical assistance, and traffic school for moving violations can now be taken care of from one's home computer.

Corporations are also reaping the benefits of e-learning for their staff training needs. The American Society of Training and Development's 2013 State of the Industry Research Report analyzed organizational expenditure on learning, using 2012 data from Fortune 500 companies and ASTD BEST Award winning companies. The report found that instructor-led classroom training decreased from 65.3 percent of available learning hours in 2006 to 54.3 percent in 2012, while in that same time frame, the proportion of learning hours that were technology-based increased from 30.3 percent to 39.2 percent, and all-online learning increased from 23.4 percent to 27.3 percent. The balance seems to be shifting from in-person training toward online training in the world of corporate learning, but we're still waiting to see if these trainings will teeter in favor of the fully online approach.

Traditionalists vs. Innovators

Some people are partial to the paperback edition. Just as a certain segment of readers will always forego an e-book out of appreciation for what some call the "thud factor" of a book's physical weight when placed on a table, many learners will probably always prefer the face-to-face, instructor-led interaction of the classic classroom setting. As pedagogical media changes, an adherence to tradition might work in retaining a certain fragment of the future student population. But could a failure to integrate learning technology prove detrimental to an educational institution's long term sustainability?

Christensen and Horn say yes. These proponents of educational change through online learning aren't even satisfied with a hybrid model. Instead, they see a complete transformation to the system as we know it -- one in which web-based models connect working groups through matchmaking technology, and mini-campuses around the world recreate communal living for those seeking the interaction of the "college days" many of us are familiar with. "The lessons from any number of industries teach us that those that truly innovate -- fundamentally transforming the model, instead of just incorporating the technology into established methods of operation -- will have the final say." At one extreme of the issue, Christensen and Horn predict that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of higher education will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years, calling disruptive innovation an "imperative" of online education.

Schools have always been centers for both innovation and tradition. Educational delivery is most likely to blend both in-person and online learning, but ultimately it is up to the success of the innovators and the preferences of young learners as they mature into college students, job-seekers and professionals. For competitors in the online learning space, recent trials and errors are, appropriately enough, an educational process. While there is progress and students have begun to adopt online learning on a larger scale, education providers haven't yet concluded whether students will gravitate toward the classrooms that keep them in line, or the classrooms that keep them online.