Online Education: Sustainability Guaranteed!

Dr. Adalbertus Kamanzi, Director of Programmes, Virtual University of Uganda

24 August 2018

In one of the articles that appeared in the New Vision newspaper, “Wakati ukuta: No way to say ‘no’ to online education”, I argued that online education was here with us and there was no way we would run away from it as it is the thing of the time. As a continuation of this theme of the unavoidability of online education, in this article I begin with a few statistical observations, point out the benefits, and wind up the question of sustainability of online education.

Not so long ago, less than a couple of decades, if one wanted to get a qualification, or even simply learn something new, there was a need that one signed up for a course at a bricks-and-mortar institution, and of course, pay any relevant fees, and then physically attend class. With the advent of the online learning, things have dramatically changed. Let us observe some startling statistics randomly picked.

Between 2012 and 2013 the number of institutions launching e-learning platforms increased by 23%. In a professional survey in 2015 that involved 25,000 (twenty-five thousand) young men and women, 80% acknowledged having taken online courses in the past. In 2015, 23% of students stated that they would not pursue a degree if their program was not available online or partially so. While in 2015, the e-learning market was worth an enormous $166.5 billion, it was estimated that it would grow to $255 billion by 2017. The swelling numbers of students choosing to follow online courses explain the explanation for the swelling financial value. The predictions show that by 2019, at least 50% of all classes will be delivered online.

The unavoidable trend is that most people who are interested in starting or going back to school for an advanced degree will be part of the bad news of a 2% shrink of college students and part of the good news of a 1% expansion of online students annually; personal attendance at a university is an option that is being surpassed by attending courses online. Broadly speaking, part of the story is that the most exciting and innovative evolutions in modern learning environments are happening outside of the classroom. There are quite a number of benefits that online education offers to learners and educators alike. Let us concentrate on only three for this article.

One: students have the ability to connect with educators regardless of location. Learners and educators use technology to interact no matter where they are or what time of the day it is, with unparalleled access to materials for any given course whenever they choose. Learning at one’s own speed and in a self-determined desirable comfortable environment are luxuries that come with online learning. Additionally, face-to-face online interactions are possible, if someone desired them; there are easy to install, free, cheap and easy to manipulate software.

Two: Averagely, online course expenses are more affordable than the same course being taught in a physical classroom. For young adults and working professionals cutting down the costs or time that would be associated with sitting in a physical classroom for several hours each day is crucial. In actual fact, online students worry less about having to pay for housing or overpriced mandatory meal plans for residential courses; no expenses to pay for transportation or childcare while completing their coursework. Last but not the least, there is willingness for employers to fund such studies as the employee is able to carry on studies while working.

Three: Students are never exactly alike; the students learn the same material differently. Of the three main styles of learning, that is, visual (learning by watching), audial (learning by listening), and kinesthetic (hands-on approach), learners are best using a style and others thrive using another one and/or a variable mixture of the three. With the variety of digital tools and technologies on online learning platforms, content is normally created following the different styles of learning, and hence the advantage of each learner finding his/her preferred style.

Those with experience with online learning realize that it has already had a transformational effect on education at all levels, with more accessibility, deepening students’ engagement, and shaping educators to shift to more student-centered classroom models. However, with online learning technology being ‘new’, and hence having just started to explore its capabilities, online learning and its tools will grow exponentially and so powerfully in a currently unimaginable way. But, is online education going to be sustainable? The answer is: yes. Let me take an approach that considers that technology revolution dynamics to respond to this question in detail.

Most revolutionary technologies, as is with the online learning, need a rather long incubation period before making their true impact. A parallel example can illustrate this. After the invention of electricity, it was known, but still debatable, that its access would utterly transform society in almost all fields; its transition to widespread access took so long to unfold and here we are enjoying its impact. The point is always that if any transition has to structurally gain speed, the custodians and embracers of the older technologies must change and embrace the change.

Similarly, in the education realm the standard instructional stance of one instructor and a group of students in a physical setting model was disrupted by the advent of early distance learning models; this was revolutionary enough: decentering the instructor and having the learner at the center of his/her learning process; the revolution implied shaking what was a way of instruction for so many civilizations and for centuries. More profound disruption is with us with the Internet-enabled online learning; more has yet to come with the 5G Internet connection, which is already around the corner, for example. The Internet revolution is an absolute challenge to the “brick and mortar monopoly” on education as now courses are now being entirely delivered over the Web.

Online education opens up for educational accessibility; with it, higher education does not remain confined to a small, physical space, as if education is destined to remain a scarce and expensive resource to ensure top-quality higher education out of the reach of millions of people. The strength of online education is with its thrust to massive education: and this is what will keep the model growing.

The growth of this model is accompanied by other dynamics to guarantee its sustainability: there is more focus from educators to focus on ‘learning’ rather than ‘teaching’, a perspective core to online education which is essentially ‘learner-centered’; more online supporting structures are being put in place (electricity, Internet connections) and other facilities that come out as a response to creativity and market forces (smartphones, software); there is more staff on the training for technical assistance; there is more research going on to ensure the improvement, smooth running, and policy recommendations in favor of online learning.