Tag Archives: Online education

The Case for Online Education


Why online education will eventually be better than offline

(Originally posted on the One Month Rails blog)

The honeymoon is over. People are writing about how online education will never replace offline education. I’d like to challenge that view: not only will online education eventually be as good as offline education, it will be better.

Saying that online education will never be as good as offline (because it’s not currently as good) is like taking one look at a Model T, saying that it’s unsafe, and urging everyone to switch back to horses.

The reason online classes will eventually be better than offline classes is simple:

We can measure and respond to students’ behavior much more easily and quickly when education is digital than when it is analog.

On the other hand, what makes for a good teacher in a classroom setting? A good teacher is someone who can:

  • come up with compelling content that explains complicated topics
  • take in a lot of information about how students are responding to that content
  • quickly adjust the style based on that information quickly

A good teacher can see the look in a student’s eyes and tell immediately whether a particular topic is resonating or not. He or she has the ability to reiterate a point and respond to questions in real time. That’s what we mean when we say that an in-person classroom experience is more “personal” — and it’s hard to imagine online education being able to match that anytime soon.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a second. In theory, a computer can take in vastly more information than a human can and respond to it much faster. According to Scientific American, two years ago the fastest computer could store almost ten time as much data as the human brain and process it almost four times as fast.

Companies in the online education space are not currently taking advantage of even a fraction of the data that they could be.

Imagine what a good teacher could do if he or she knew where exactly a student was getting confused during a lesson, how long it took that student to complete an exercise, or even the student’s physiological responses to the content (say, for example, by tracking heart-rate or eye movements via webcam — forget about the creepy-factor).

There are a handful of education startups already tracking some of this data, but they’ve barely scratched the surface of how to use it to make education more compelling.

This brings me to my second and more pressing point:

The biggest problem with in-person education is that it forces a linear, one-size-fits-all teaching style.

In any classroom, there will be some students are behind and some that are ahead.

Even the best teacher in the world must deal with this tradeoff, which boils down to the following question: Should I slow down to help more students understand, or speed up to cover more material?

And so they inevitably end up settling on a pace and an educational approach somewhere in the middle.

As a result, in-person education is always suboptimal for a large number of students in a classroom.

Online education can solve this problem because it allows for personalized learning. Educational content and style can adapt to a particular student and that student’s response to a particular lesson.

Imagine a world in which no one person experiences the same class in the same way. One that adjusts a lesson on computer programming depending on whether a student already has previous experience with programming, or is a total beginner — why not use concepts a student may already have to allow them to learn something faster?

Or one in which the way the material is delivered is different depending on whether the student is an auditory, a visual, or a kinesthetic learner.

Or one in which the order of the lessons themselves are rearranged. (Or A/B tested!)

Or one that can identify early that a student might get stuck in an upcoming lesson and takes him or her on a learning detour to reinforce important concepts and avoid frustration that might otherwise lead to abandonment.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine this world, because Salman Khan is already doing it with Khan Academy (watch 13:35 if you’re not yet sold on the value of personalized education).

Finally, advancements in online education allow teachers to treat classes in the same way that startups treat products.

There are tons of amazing tools out there for a/b testing, onboarding, gamification, email campaigns, measuring user satisfaction, and so much more that startups use. Why not apply the same tools to education? It’s going to happen, it’s only a matter of time.

That’s why it’s frustrating to hear people brush off online education as a failure that will never amount to anything. Let’s see the current batch of online educational classes and platforms as what they really are: a first attempt.

Written by

creator of “One Month Rails”, partner at @growhack, teacher at @ga, growth hacker at @qventures, ny ambassador to @sandbox_network, add,

Published January 15, 2014

The Changing Face of Education


Or rather: learning we have a long way to go.

There’s no doubt about it, education is changing. Online education is becoming an increasingly popular option for learners worldwide, and it’s quite hard to decipher the excitement surrounding this migration to online. We thought we’d make it that bit simpler by delving into the world of online education, and exploring what it can offer, where it’s at now, and what it could be in a climate of constantly evolving educational demands.

Online education fits the lifestyle, demands and professional ambitions of millennial audiences. Self-initiated, globally connected and with the opportunity for brutally democratic peer-to-peer assessments, online courses offer the independence and self-direction highly valued by those that want a keen control on their learning. It’s no wonder why the most influential online education providers are attracting under-35 year olds in their droves.

In an industry that is growing at a staggering pace, online course providers such as edX, Coursera and more recently, FutureLearn, offer thousands of diploma-equivalent courses to sub- scribers for minimal entry requirements. With the opportunity to cultivate global communities through forums and social media, control the pace and time of their learning, and have a greater choice of subjects at a budget-price, it’s easy to see why there is such a high sign-up rate. However, out of every 100 students on a Coursera course, less than 10% will actually complete their course. This raises questions into the educational models used online, be- cause, essentially, online courses are unlike conventional seminars and lectures. Millenials know what they want from their education, and often need constant feedback, and a rapid sense of development, choice and democracy, which is why questions are being asked of the evolving landscape of online education. Do we continue on this course, or do we find new, innovative methods of addressing our growing student population?

Online course providers are constantly challenging conventional, institutional education as we know it. Still very much in their infancy, they are using a range of teaching methods to take existing academic courses and translate them onto digital platforms. From video tutorials with accompanying material, to live webcasting with chatrooms, online education providers are using new, adaptive practices in order to get students from point A to point B, no-knowledge to complete, comprehensive knowledge, without losing engagement. However, there’s no use in doing a course that ticks all the boxes, all of the course requirements, without leaving qualified. Not just because of the qualification you’ve earned, but with the confidence that you are prepared to start your professional life. Here lies the on-going challenge, which is not specific to digital platforms, of how to create, and deliver, the complete package.

We are seduced by the story of The Drop-out Entrepreneur, the mythologies of the Zuckerberg’s and Jobs’ of the world, which push us to reconsider our paths to professional life. Do we need to spend thousands of pounds sitting in a classroom, virtual or physical, in order to get what we need to prepare us for our careers? The Drop-out Entrepreneurs made their millions through a self-initiated, self-directed education, which, in a climate of rising tuition fees, is an overwhelmingly attractive option for young people today. It’s very clear that we’re experiencing a generation eager to learn but impatient to do so, and that we need to embrace this by developing a more varied learning experience, informed by this culture of self-management. One that is experiential, and tailored, that reaps the benefits of the learn-as-you-go style demonstrated by our entrepreneurial heroes.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘flipping classrooms’ and gamification, but even CodeAcademy still leads you through problems by asking students to fulfil a task, rather than letting them explore and find their own solutions. I’d like to imagine a new path for online learning that looked a little like an 80s text adventure game, the kind you would play on an Acorn computer.

As a player, or in this case, student, you begin by answering a simple question or riddle, then go on to define your own path through the game. Each learner’s journey through the content might be a little different, but the method by which they access each element is part of the teaching process. Those roadblocks along the way, expected or otherwise, encourage students to think creatively, to search out the right answer without having their destination predefined. It is this application of critical thinking, this learning through doing, and thinking one, or two, steps ahead, that allow for this entrepreneurial incubation.HAk66HF

Now, I’m not saying that we should ditch everything and go back to an age of Flash simulators, but there’s something to be learned from them. We should be questioning whether the linear learning path that exists in classrooms, which is proving to be inflexible to modern demands, is still relevant online, and best for the students we subscribe. We should be welcoming new digital platforms as an flagship of innovation and experimentation, taking the opportunity to engage students in new, and exciting ways that attract those future learners. Addressing the ways we prepare students for unexpected problems, and teaching them to learn from failure as well as success, might leave them feeling confident and fully qualified for what lies ahead.


Kindly edited by Natalie Kane

Written by

Digital Business Consultant at If Not Now @TEDxBrighton Producer / Curator