I’ve been taking a number of classes online through websites like Coursera and the MIT Opencourseware. While the MIT courses are entirely self-paced, the Coursera classes are done in real-time and vary from 2-weeks to 12-weeks in length. The one I’m currently taking is about algorithms and programming in Java. It’s run by teacher assistants, alongside the professor, and is exceptionally well-designed. The site itself is easily navigated, well maintained, and can be viewed from just about any country (Can’t watch Youtube in China and so many lectures are posted there). There are video lectures, assignments that are randomly generated so you can’t just plug in the answers and go back and try again, and programming assignments that are actually graded. It feels similar to taking an on campus computer science class but without the headache of parking. You also are better able to communicate with your peers, as it’s much more comfortable to approach someone on the net than in person. The discussion forums are filled with helpful and bright individuals willing to lend guidance. The conversations are lively, questions are answered quickly, and it makes you want to participate and help out where you can. In truth, this format does a better job than most classrooms, as it differentiates based on work speed, allows feedback from multiple sources, all while creating a structured learning environment. For people like myself that find themselves too distracted to sit quietly while someone lectures for an hour this type of structure is perfect. It allows me to take in pieces of information instead of trying to swallow a whole chunk at once.
There are challenges to online education, especially when you apply it to younger age groups. The obvious one is that it takes self-motivation. It takes a person that wants to learn and is willing to put in the time. Not everyone is as intrinsically motivated, and having the class environment there to push them often helps. We are already seeing a push towards online education in rural areas, as well as for students that aren’t coping with a traditional educational environment. It will take some time to get students to adjust and to teach parents how to take help shoulder the burden of oversight, but in the future I expect to see online education grow in ways we never expected. The day that the teacher is merely there to supervise and lend the occasional hand is the day we’ve perfected education.