Most mornings, I pick up the New York Times and read the front page, skim the international and domestic section, and then skip right back to the Op-Ed pages, because I always find the letters to the editor interesting. Recently, there have been a lot of letters about the benefits of online universities, specifically from readers debating whether or not online education is the way of the future.
That’s not the only place I’ve been hearing about it, though. YouTube, Facebook, and television commercials are rife with advertisements for various online universities, and many major research universities have jumped on board as well, posting taped lectures and sometimes even extending enrollment in classes to online students as well. In doing so, they’ve made learning accessible to an entirely new generation of students, many of whom may have never had the chance to obtain any experience with higher education. One recent Times article in January, for instance, profiled a twelve year-old girl in the Middle East who, forbidden from attending school, had been taking online physics and math courses so that she could keep up with her learning. Single parents who work full-time, adults without the time or money to go to school, and students all over the world who are unable, for whatever reason, to attend school now have options to continue learning even if they cannot attend a traditional classroom, and I think this is a good thing.
I don’t necessarily think that online education is—or will be—superior to traditional classrooms and interpersonal interactions. I like being able to interact with my professors, to go to office hours or ask questions during class if I’m not clear on a concept in chemistry. Generally, my experience in small classes, surrounded by mature and intelligent peers, have been invaluable learning experiences.
But as much as these aspects have helped me as a student, I also recognize that they are privileges that ultimately aren’t necessary for learning, even if they are extremely helpful. Considering the vast number of people who do not have access to higher education, doesn’t it seem appropriate to use our expansive modern technology to close that gap? While I don’t see education in the future becoming predominantly internet-based, I do think we should embrace online education as a potential way to bridge the education gap between those privileged enough to attain higher education and those who are currently shut out.