Technological advancements of the last two decades have completely changed what education can be and how knowledge can be efficiently distributed to students. After World War II the integration of technology into the curriculum and teaching process (more specifically, video-based instruction) became widespread, and by the end of the seventies there were initiatives around the country focused on individualized, computer-assisted education. The subsequent rise of the Internet and the rapid proliferation of information and cheap consumer electronics changed two major things: they lowered the age that children became exposed to vast stores of information and, in turn, fundamentally changed the way younger generations preferred to learn.
Today, technology is an intimate part of the classroom experience for many students from early education onward. Computers, laptops, tablets and the web all serve to enhance the learning experience and to make that experience mobile. Unlike in the seventies, today a high school or a college student can take classes right from their couches or while traveling. There has obviously been resistance—a lot of educational institutions around the United States either don’t have funding for computers in the classroom or prefer to use books—but this resistance will certainly wane over time as generations who learned the alphabet through tablet games become teachers themselves.
The Democratization of Knowledge
Perhaps the most fundamental and important effect of the Internet and web-based technology on society has been to bring free knowledge to masses of people that might otherwise never have had access to it. You can learn how to cook your favorite meal on YouTube. You can learn how to dance, how to play an instrument, how to write a book, how to solve a physics problem—all online, all for free. Many smart people have recognized the need to organize this free knowledge in a way that is structured and contextualized. One way this recognition manifested itself in the ‘90s is within the OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement.
What is OpenCourseWare?
OpenCourseWare is a collection of specific college lectures and course material, including homework problems and lessons, tests, and other materials, published by an educational institution online for free. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tubingen, and Carnegie Mellon University were among the notable first to do this, and the effort grew into an international movement to increase the availability of educational resources for people desiring to learn. Even though watching all of the video lectures and completing homework assignments and quizzes does not grant any certification or access to special faculty members, OpenCourseWare has made it possible to test the waters of higher education before deciding whether it’s worth investing in a degree.
Here are a few places to get started:
- MIT OpenCourseWare – Currently offers free material from more than 2,200 of its courses, including online textbooks.
- The Open Education Consortium – An international association of universities from around the world that offer OpenCourseWare.
- Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative – lots of cross-pollination with Stanford’s program
- UMass Boston OpenCourseWare
- Open Yale courses
- Harvard Medical School open courses
What is a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)?
A massively open online course is a free or very low-cost program that is usually paced by a professor. They are designed to allow thousands of students from all over the world to participate in the same learning experience. First, lectures are typically broadcast online at specific times. Students follow along with reading and assignments and have an opportunity to interact with other students in an online forum-like environment if they have questions about what they’re learning. Sometimes an MOOC also has a set of teaching aids who make themselves available if there is a concept that a student doesn’t understand or wants to discuss in more detail. These courses cost much, much less than a traditional college class. A few offer certificates of completion, some of which might hold clout with employers depending on their preferences. At this time colleges do not award credit for completing a massively open online course, though some have incorporated them into their traditional curricula.
A few popular collections of MOOCs:
One of the most striking technology-driven differences in higher education is the development and spread of distance learning. If browsing through open course materials is not enough, or if a person wants to actually pursue an official accredited degree, he or she can enroll in an online program with an established brick and mortar university. Classes will cost the same per credit hour (or only a little less), but students avoid having to commute and to pay for things like room and board, which are a significant portion of the cost of tuition today. Accredited online degrees look the same as a degree obtained by physically being on campus, and over recent years have gained more popularity and acceptance among employers.
How is an online degree paced?
Most online degree programs deliver their content asynchronously—which means that it doesn’t matter if you view the week’s learning material at 8 AM on Monday versus 4 PM on Tuesday. You choose when you’re ready to view and digest the content, and if you don’t understand everything on the first try, or you are a slow reader, or you also have a daytime job that limits your availability during the day, it doesn’t matter—you pace your education. When you feel comfortable with the material of a given lesson, you test your comprehension of that knowledge with a test or a quiz, and then you move on to the next module until you complete the course.
By contrast, if you attend a college campus physically, classes occur at a set time that you do not choose, even if it is 8AM on Monday morning or 4:00 PM on Friday. Major tests designed to evaluate your understanding of the course material will be given on fixed dates, and if you have not absorbed the content by then you risk a poor grade. There is an element of urgency, and the further you fall behind the harder it becomes to catch up. On average, most online degrees take about the same amount of time to complete as if a student were on campus. The biggest benefit that people get out of distance education is the ability to pace it how they desire, but this lack of urgency requires extra discipline on the part of the student to make the experience worthwhile. And, since online education is still a fairly new and developing sphere, degree offerings are limited. For instance, any degree with strong laboratory foci like chemistry or biology cannot be entirely obtained online—you’ll need to take those courses at a local college with a laboratory for use.
What about diploma mills?
Diploma mills are schools that are set up to scam students. They coax people into their programs with the promise of cheap, easy education that gets them to graduation more quickly than normal. Though these types of institutions have been around as long as colleges themselves have, online learning has provided a different platform for them to flourish. The American government has done much to crack down on these institutions, but their flighty nature makes them difficult to track and easy for scammers to remake. If you are in the market for an online degree, the single most important thing that you can do is check an institution’s accreditation status. If a school claims that it has an excellent online business program that is not endorsed by a national or international body which evaluates such programs, that’s a red flag to think twice.
Here are some other things to look out for:
- The type of accreditation. Regional accreditation tends to hold high value in America. An online degree granting institution that is only “nationally accredited” or that has “full accreditation” may not be recognized by employers or other colleges as legitimate. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation does recognize a national accrediting organization for online schools called the Distance Education Accreditation Council (DEAC), but if you ultimately want to transfer online credit to a four year college, you may not be able to carry over the credits from a DEAC accredited school. National accreditation is not an immediate alarm, but simply means you should do further investigation.
- Negative reviews online. Always do your research. Look into a school’s educational outcomes and see what former students have to say about it. You may have to search deep. A diploma mill with a lot of negative reviews can hire a reputation management firm to effectively bury bad reviews, so cast your net wide.
- A history of lawsuits. Diploma mills are often the targets of legal cases. Look to see if the school has ever had its funding from federal loans revoked, or if it has ever faced a class-action lawsuit over false marketing promises or weak educational outcomes.
- Toll-free, catchy phone numbers. If the school you’re interested in has a number that looks like spam, be wary. Phone calls make it easier for sales representatives to hook you into a scam for commission.
Some brick and mortar universities (and online programs) have taken a more direct approach to student technology access by requiring students to lease a laptop from the university as a part of the fees associated with attendance. The specifications of these laptops vary depending on the university’s offerings—a school with a robust graphic design, broadcasting, or computer engineering program may offer machines with top-shelf specs, while others may choose middle-road models that won’t add significant expenses for technical support.
These programs provide consistent, easy access to technology in the classroom. As students can be virtually guaranteed to have laptops with a baseline set of specifications, courses that make use of new technologies can easily integrate them directly into the learning experience without being limiting. A publication design course, for example, can cover techniques specific to the industry standard Adobe InDesign as well as general theory and practice, giving students a leg up on future competitors for jobs that require knowledge of specific common software.
The Future of Technology in Education
MOOCs and OpenCourseWare aren’t the only chances that students hungry for knowledge have to expand their horizons. The rise of free online video has brought new opportunities for self-driven, self-starting learners.
Some professors and industry leaders have made their wisdom freely available through YouTube and other proprietary free video platforms. Other lecture platforms like Khan Academy provide video and audio lectures alongside practical exercises in a manner similar to OCW or MOOCs. Resources like Duolingo (for language learners) and Codeacademy (for learning computer language) provide immediate instruction and feedback without requiring the presence of a teacher. For learners who want to try out a foreign language or who don’t have the resources to take a semester at a local school, these types of programs are easy ways to get started in a structured environment.