Education Breaks Loose

For most people hoping to get an education, the biggest obstacle they face is not the studying involved, or the tests, or even the tuition. The biggest obstacle is simply getting to the classroom. The need to schedule a course and get to every class presents a substantial obstacle to the typical busy working person. A big part of the momentum behind online education comes from the idea that it breaks education loose from the confines of any specific place. Students take online courses wherever they can access the Internet — most often, at their offices or homes.

The challenge that educators face is that online courses require carefully designed, well-organized instructional materials to create the experience of learning that a good teacher creates in a classroom. Some of the early online education initiatives were centered around video recordings of classroom lectures, but those efforts have fallen short. A good video of a world-class classroom lecture is not interactive enough to create an effective online course. On the other hand, interactivity is easy enough to create on the web, and the most effective online courses are built around good old-fashioned hypertext.

Online education has its greatest advantages in new technology subjects for which qualified instructors are scarce. For example, most of the training in Java, Sun Microsystem’s portable programming language, is already happening online.

Another special advantage of online education is its ability to respond to a student’s sudden impulse to study a subject. This has a special significance in the human potential field, where it may be a nagging problem or a sudden insight that leads a student to a subject of study. Just as a person with an impulse to buy a product may be able to place an order at an online store within a few minutes, a person who decides to study a subject may be able to find and begin an online course just as quickly — at any hour of the day or night.

Online education is still very new, but it will expand beyond the niches it currently occupies and could eventually replace a significant fraction of traditional classroom training.

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