Is Online Learning the ‘Ruin of Education’?

There’s a discussion happening right now that you should know about. It’s about a little thing called the future of education as we know it. In case you didn’t notice, online learning platforms are sprouting up around the world. They’re enabling anyone with an Internet connection to get a better education.

When I say ‘better’ education, I mean it’s better than the ‘no’ education they’re currently getting. So I’m all for online education as long as it’s being used to educate people who would not normally be able to take the particular classes they’re enrolled in online.

“A Diploma Factory”

But what about students who are choosing to attend online schools instead of traditional colleges? What about the students who are simply replacing all in-classroom courses with online ones? That’s the big question being asked in various places online. Alexander Spring made one of the more notable cases in a recent Huffington Post article. He posited that “online education turns a center for learning into a diploma factory.”

Spring goes on to detail the social problems attached to online-only schooling as well as the fact that some online-only schools do not have deadlines that are as strict as brick-and-mortar classrooms. Whether it’s true or not, that’s what he writes. He then goes on to state “there is no thought being put into quality education anymore.”

So yea. This is quite an inflammatory piece. It’s supposed to be. As a technology integrator, it got my hackles up and felt like my love of education technology is wrong. Which is obviously not the case. Nor is it what he is saying.

The Discussion Is Underway

In my opinion, Spring is simply hoping for online schools to be better. He doesn’t really give any details on how that can happen but he’s at least started the discussion. Without getting into whether or not the article was well-researched, accurate, or even worthwhile… we can all agree that it has at least raised the level of discussion about the proper role of online schools.

Want to make your voice heard about the ‘ruin of education’ article? Add your comments to this article below so other readers can see what you have to say.

LinkedIn has one of my favorite discussion boards on this topic right now. The Technology In Education group (definitely worth joining!) has a few solid responses to the questions raised by Spring:

Richard G. • I believe that the original intention for online learning was to reach children in remote areas, e.g. the Australian Outback. However, many businesses began to use it for employees who were working, but who wanted to (or needed to) develop additional skills in connection with their employment.

By the time e-learning arrived at schools, the point of it seemed somewhat questionable – being a case for most of: “Find a way to use this” and not, “You need this – here you are!”

Many children and teachers wondered why they should engage in e-learning when there was a perfectly good classroom with full social interaction already in place. E-learning platforms became repositories for file storage and no actual “e-learning” took place through the platform.

Moving forward to the present day; we now have access to “smart” technology – beyond regular netbooks and mobile phones. Potentially, this opens up new opportunities for 2-way learning and teaching – anytime, anywhere – not just in the confines of a school. However, we are still some way off utilizing the potential of this in mainstream schools.

Online learning for its own sake is very different to regular principles of learning. Those who propose e-learning solutions are often oblivious to the need of learners to have proper social interaction and physical presence relationships. Whilst most young people are now used to social networking and using online communication, formal learning is still difficult if it wholly relies on screen to screen methods.

Christopher C. • Blended classrooms do a much better job than pure online classes. We have pure online classes that have teachers as babysitters and we have not seen a significant value in them. Our classes that are using blended or flipped models are doing much better.

Susana C. • I agree with Christopher. Is teacher’s resistance on embracing technology in the classrooms that creates this “apartheid”. Technology can enhance collaborative learning within the classroom and can also leverage the creation of a community of learning outside school walls, e.g, using skype, google docs, blogs…the “class” can become accessible 24/7 and promote ownership of students. Learning should be more focused on supporting the development of transferable skills…

Eric B. • Well put, Richard. Online “schools” seem like a low-cost, easy solution, but rarely is the best solution the easiest. Still, although a blended class is harder, it is becoming much easier to implement. As long as e teachers are engaged in it, the students will also find it very engaging.


  1. StudyEgg

    April 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Richard and Christopher definitely hit the nail on the head. As it stands right now eLearning is often this repository of static content that the student have to essentially teach themselves, but as we start to see more success with the blended learning model I think a lot of that will change.  I think as video lessons become more and more prevalent through Khan Academy, TED Ed, and countless others, the teaching portion can be taken offline and be just as effective as in-class teaching.  And using interactive tools currently leveraged very effectively in the blended model can make online learning a comparable and worthy alternative to brick and mortar.

  2. MyKlassroom

    April 10, 2012 at 2:03 am

    I agree with Susana and Christopher, Technology has to be  thought of a supplementary tool for classroom education at-least for now. With lot of social learning platform sprouting, we can build a better learning community which is not confined to the campus walls. Expose your students to diverse set of people and facilitate a health discussion across the globe, just like this discussion.
    Recently with top schools like stanford and MIT started offering their courses online with strict schedule, assignments and ability to collaborate with students around the world, I think online learning will soon find its right place.  

  3. raymondmartyrose

    April 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I wish the people who comment about online education would either have a better understanding of the field or be more specific with their comments.  With a single sweep of the brush you’ve painted all online education.  There are so many variations included in that brush stroke and you’ve even included higher ed with K-12.
    First, there are some online education programs that don’t seem to be doing a creditable job of providing an education.  Noted that there was a comment that some on-ground programs are doing equally bad.  But it’s pretty narrow-minded to say the only good online education program is the one that provides content not otherwise available. 
    Yes, when we started the Virtual High School we were teaching elective courses that students couldn’t get in their brick-and-mortar setting.  Then, we learned that some students performed better online than on-ground.  We know there are effective online pedagogies, and that some online programs ignore the leanings of others.
    There are a number of high quality online education programs.  There are a number of folks in the field of online education that care passionately about quality and about insuring that all students have access to high quality education.  There are also folks who have had horrendous experiences with online education.  But there are millions more that have had horrendous experiences with on-ground education.
    The truth is that in both online and on-ground education there are pockets or excellence and there are pockets of missery.  It’s time to begin focusing the conversation not about what’s wrong with education, but what we can do to make it better.  And for me, that means changing the model — just because the adult decision-makers were successful in the current model of education — which was based on a society and environment over a century old, that’s not good justification to keep it.  We know a whole lot more about how people learn today than folks did in 1893.  We know seat-time isn’t a real measure of learning, but our policy-makers insist that we structure educational institutions around a seat-time model. 
    It’s time to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.