Learning in pajamas

The rising value of online education


Free time is not a luxury that 22-year-old Rhianna Taylor can afford these days. The University of Colorado Boulder senior works 40 hours a week at University Bicycles, and spends most of her other time running, swimming and biking in training for the CU triathlon team. But at the end of her action-packed days, Taylor’s work is not over. She still has class to attend. She usually settles in on her porch with her laptop and a notebook, ready to listen to a lecture, take some notes and post on her class’s discussion board.

Taylor is currently taking Gender, Race and Class in a Global Context online at CU. Though she was a senior last year, Taylor still needs these credits to graduate, but her many commitments meant she would not be able to fit a “face-to-face” class into her schedule this summer. So Taylor, like thousands of other students across the United States, turned to online education.

A study performed in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Education showed that since 2000, the percentage of undergraduate students enrolled in at least one online class (what they call “distance education”) increased from 8 percent to 20 percent. The same study also showed that students with families or spouses, students with full-time or part-time jobs and students with disabilities were even more likely to enroll in online courses.

Why the surge in popularity? John Levisay, founder and CEO of Sympoz, a Denver-based company that offers online courses, says it has to do with time.

“We believe that part of the reason people don’t continue to pursue education is that they’re just too busy,” Levisay says. “But with the online platform, you can take the class whenever you want to or can. Some people might do an entire week’s worth of class on an open Saturday, while another student watches every lecture at 10 p.m. when their kids are in bed. It makes everything a lot more convenient.”

For Taylor, that convenience is everything.

“I like the flexibility an online class offers versus the rigidity of summer school,” Taylor says. “It’s great because I can do the reading on my own time. And since it’s my only class, I can actually focus instead of spreading myself too thin.”

And Taylor gets that convenience without compromising the quality of her education. Another Department of Education report, this one from 2009, showed that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

This finding can be attributed to a number of aspects of online education, says Geoffrey Rubinstein, director of independent learning at CU. First, online education outlets are now teaching students who are more tech-savvy than ever before, and they are using technology in a more effective way to provide a better educational experience.

“There are much more sophisticated tools out there now than just a PowerPoint with a voiceover,” Rubinstein says. “We might have a teacher record a little bit of their lecture, and then use a stylus on the screen to solve an equation in front of the students. Even if you are showing recorded lectures, students in online courses have the chance to go back and re-watch lectures, so that’s an advantage we have over traditional classes, where you hear the lecture once and that’s it.”

This growth and innovation is not limited to formal classes. Sympoz offers a less traditional education — in the form of classes ranging from cooking and sewing to cake decorating — and embraces new technologies to teach these courses. Sympoz students watch video lectures and can ask questions while they watch. Their questions, and the teachers’ answers, are recorded, allowing later students to view the question-and-answer interaction, and chime in with their own ideas or suggestions.

“If you think back to the best class you had in high school, college or even grad school, the real experience was not just the professor’s lecture, which is inherently a passive experience, ” Levisay says. “It was the lecture combined with the interaction with your fellow classmates and the actual instructor. The platform we’ve developed is inherently social and interactive.”

The interactions of students in online classes are essential to their success, says Rubinstein.

“In any regular class, there are the people who are more extroverted and will sit up front and raise their hands,” Rubinstein says. “Sometimes there are people that have a lot to say, but aren’t as quick to jump out and say it. One of the things we find is that in many cases, the participation of certain students increases quite a bit in online classes.”

There are yet other online education outlets that are helping teach people around the world without requiring them to enroll in a university or pay large sums of money. Organizations like iTunes U, the Khan Academy and TED have made videos and recorded lectures available for free. Each has its own model. iTunes U offers courses from universities such as Harvard and Yale, while TED talks feature some of the world’s most interesting and knowledgeable people speaking on topics of their choosing. The Khan Academy offers classes in subjects like math and the humanities, and provides quizzes alongside its videos and personal “knowledge maps” to trace each student’s progress.

But will the free course offerings from companies like iTunes U begin to discourage people from pursuing a degree at a traditional university? Probably not in the foreseeable future, Levisay and Rubinstein say.

“The difficulty is that in the purely academic sphere, you have large institutions that have a lot of entrenched constituencies, and so the speed of adoption of new technology is not rapid,” Levisay says. “You have all these traditions, and it’s very difficult to change those.”

At CU, no degree can yet be achieved solely through online classes. What online education can offer, though, is the chance for people to continue expanding their knowledge of course material through a model that allows for flexibility of scheduling and the possibility of increased student involvement.

“I think there’s going to always be an element of a live classroom,” says Rubinstein. “But if online education is done right, where it captures and actually drives good learning outcomes, I think it will continue to grow and have a major role in education.”

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