Online learning or face-to-face? Increasingly, the best answer is ‘both.’ Here's a look at how new technologies and mindsets are changing the face of education.
Online learning isn't new. In 1960, when a single computer could still fill up a whole room, the University of Illinois launched PLATO — Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations — a computer system that offered 20 lessons at a time.
What is new is that the technology that makes online learning both dramatically more efficient and less expensive — not to mention more mobile — has reached a tipping point, according to Jeff Cobb, a consultant and author who has worked in e-learning for two decades. Technological advances like cloud-based computing, expanded Internet access, the proliferation of mobile devices, new open-source platforms, and social-networking tools are all converging to create a revolution in electronically delivered education.
Evidence of online learning's accelerating influence is everywhere. The nonprofit Khan Academy, created in 2008 after financial analyst Salman Khan began posting YouTube videos to help tutor his extended family, offers nearly 5,000 free instructional videos for learners at all levels, and has 8 million global users each month. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun launched Udacity, an online platform that offers free classes on a massive scale, in 2013, after he and another professor opened their Stanford course on artificial intelligence to whoever wanted to participate virtually and drew 160,000 enrollees from 180 countries. And Coursera, another startup that offers free online classes on a global scale (known as MOOCs — massive open online courses), has more than 100 partners, including the U.S. State Department and China, and has enrolled more than 5 million students over the last two years.
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The revolution isn't limited to institutions and well-funded startups. EdX, a nonprofit online education network founded by Harvard University and MIT, and Google have announced that next year they will jointly launch a global open-source platform that will be available to individuals, businesses, and organizations. “We are at the point at which nearly anyone with a decent computer, a high-speed Internet connection, and expertise or access to expertise in a topic or skill can reach a global audience in very sophisticated ways,” Cobb writes in his 2013 book, Leading the Learning Revolution: The Expert's Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Lifelong Education Market. Organizations that dismiss online learning as inferior “do so at their own peril,” Cobb notes. “The caliber and range of the content available is truly astounding.”
'Sustaining and Raising Value'
How scared should meeting professionals be? It depends on how focused they are on delivering value, Cobb said in an interview. “People tend to go to conferences for education.” Although there are other factors like networking that have intrinsic value, “still, you pay a lot of money and spend quite a bit of time to go to your average conference,” Cobb said. “And I know with my own experience with conferences, a lot of times you just do not walk away feeling like the educational impact was necessarily all that solid.”
And as the quality of free and low-cost online education has grown, the balance is shifting. “If there is a question in somebody's mind about whether the value is really there,” Cobb said, “I think [potential attendees] increasingly are going to look at online options.... I think if conference providers aren't really focused on sustaining and raising value, they'll be hit.”
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Many organizers have recognized the need to adapt to the changed environment, he said. “They really are focusing on the question of, how do we make the level of learning that occurs in our conferences higher than it has been in the past?” But associations and other organizations that produce meetings can be “terrible” at conveying the value of the learning and education that they're going to provide. “They will send out email promotions,” Cobb said, but not messages that clearly articulate the conference learning experience.
Emotion also can shift the balance back to the personal. “Human nature isn't suddenly going to change,” Cobb said. “There are certain people I want to see that make it worth it for me to get on the plane and go to the conference. And I will get some great education while I'm there, I'll network. That will continue to happen, because people like to do that.”
One of the paradoxes of online communication is that it tends to emphasize the value of face-to-face interaction. As social-media tools have expanded our personal and professional networks, they've led to new ways for people to collaborate and associate with one another — including in person, Clay Shirky, a professor in the interactive communications and journalism program at New York University, said in a talk he delivered at the CEIR Predict conference in New York City in September.
A prime example of this happened during Thrun's original artificial-intelligence class, which made no provisions for online students to interact with one another. “Students knew that this was a completely terrible model,” Shirky said, “because learning artificial intelligence is hard, and the way that people learn is in conversation, not just by absorbing information.” So students turned to an online tool, Meetup, to form their own in-person study groups. One such gathering in New York City drew 168 people, which was more than the number of students enrolled in any artificial-intelligence class on any college campus at that time, Shirky said. “This is what it means to care about face-to-face.”
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Both the online and physical world were needed for success. While the students wouldn't have gotten together without the online class, they also wouldn't have performed as well in the class if all they'd done were meet online. “The core problem,” Shirky said, “is to figure out how face-to-face overlaps with information delivery.”
For example, the social-networking tools that have increased the ability for people to add their own opinions and content to online forums have also created new expectations for interaction — not just in the digital space, but in physical environments. Carol McGury, senior vice president of event and education services at SmithBucklin, has been in the industry for 25 years. “I remember being part of significant 6,000- to 7,000-person events, and the common format was, you go into the classroom, you sit down, one or two people talk, and you leave an hour later,” she said. “That has all changed in terms of how we produce events, mainly because adult learners have changed, and [also because of the] advent of the Millennials coming in and being part of the community.”
There also is more pressure on speakers to engage audiences, “to do some things in the context of presenting that help people to focus in on particular issues and questions,” Cobb said. “Even during a keynote, now you might see some group activities going on. With a tool like Poll Everywhere, anybody who has a cellphone can contribute to a quick poll and get some feedback in real time. Or have somebody who is in charge of facilitating the Twitter hashtag for the conference, highlighting good resources and connecting people around productive discussions.”
Mobile technology also has made online learning more accessible. Back