clicktolearn In our increasingly connected world, we are often told of the values of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn in providing a human face to the internet, in making the internet more social.  The internet has made it possible for us to keep in touch with far-away friends, collaborate with people from around the world, and locate people from high school with whom we have lost touch.  But is it a replacement for face-to-face (F2F) interaction?  If so, in what situations is it a suitable replacement?  Could the internet be used as a substitute for a traditional classroom?  Is it possible to replace F2F education with a wholly online version?

Irrespective of the quality question – whether the online experience meets or exceeds F2F education – there are a number of reasons for doing so.  First, many public educational institutions are under the pressure of severe budget cuts, making online education tantalizing from a cost-cutting perspective.  According to a recent New York Times article, budget cuts totaling 25% over three years have forced the University of Florida into leveraging online education as a way to control both fixed and operational costs.  Resident students there are earning 12 percent of their credit hours online, a figure that, according to the article, will increase 25% in the next five years.

Second is the question of access, which can be tied closely to finances.  For many public institutions, the quality aspect has to be balanced against the fiscal reality.  Online education is viewed as a way to achieve a sub-optimal but more broadly beneficial outcome not possible within the current financial constraints.  More students can be educated with fewer faculty members, thereby reducing operational costs.  Another New York Times article highlights Sheffield High School in Memphis, where online courses have transformed the school’s reputation as a “dropout factory” to one where 86% of students graduate by allowing students to make up failed courses.  Other school districts are leveraging online courses as a way to supplement on-site offerings.  In the past, small numbers of students in need of a particular course may not have justified the district’s expense for an instructor.  With online learning, however, districts can now provide this access through various online learning arrangements.  Here in New Hampshire, where EduSophia is located, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) fulfills this need.

A third potential benefit is that of time-shifting.  The time constraints of many traditional classes simply shut out many learners.  As an undergraduate, I had a classmate whose financial situation forced him to work a job while attending school full-time, and the job’s working hours forced him to be at work during the same time period as his economics class.  Since the course was large in size, the university recorded it on video, so he simply watched the video later in the library at his leisure.  Online courses provide this same benefit.  In a recent article titled “Point-and-Click Learning” appearing in the Los Angeles Times, the author profiles a single working mother who can literally see Moorpark College across her backyard, but who has been unable to attend because of her schedule.  Now that the college offers online courses, she can.  This convenience factor is one of the top reasons cited by students enrolling in online courses for choosing them over a traditional classroom setting.

Cost and convenience, then, might be the two principal components spurring the development of online courses and programs.  For the institutions offering the programs, the savings are tangible.  Moreover, for the consumer, the student, the convenience makes possible what was heretofore impossible.  What, then, of quality?  For such students, quality may not be a primary determinant: while there is likely a minimal acceptable quality level, the convenience is far more important.  This is a good thing for educational institutions rolling out online programs, as both research and expert opinion are mixed.  While a study in 2009 by the U. S. Department of Education showed small improvements of online learning over a traditional classroom experience, recent research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and featured in a New York Times article highlights the fact that online learning may put Hispanic ethnic groups and males at a particular disadvantage.  Experts on education are likewise divided over whether online learning results in any kind of tangible improvements.

In the end, however, the debate simply may not matter.  According to The Sloan Consortium’s most recent report on online education (titled “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011” and available as a free download here), online education is growing at a rate of 10% versus 2% for the overall higher education population.  With such a rapid growth rate, what’s clearly evident is that online education is here to stay.  Moreover, many students and colleges are deeming the potential benefits as outweighing any negatives.  Quality is an obvious concern for those individuals in the high end of the marketplace, but even those concerns may mitigate as educational institutions begin to differentiate themselves with online programs that better meet the needs of specific populations.