Online-only education sprung out of the need to bring education to students’ homes when they lived in isolated areas or when their daily schedule would not allow for physical classroom attendance. Put this together with the opportunities provided by modern technology and you have the why and the how in online courses.
There are quite a few angles to approach this phenomenon. You can either see online education as guided self-education, setting objectives, deadlines and tests for the students eager to improve their knowledge, or you can see it as education stripped of its human face-to-face interactions – pure information delivery set in a regulated context.
Online education brings back to mind a sequence from a black and white movie – a girl could not attend classes with her colleagues because she was ill, but instead she participated via a device that provided audio and video images, answered the teachers’ questions and took her homework and notes. This is not the case anymore, since healthy dynamic people choose to take online classes. There are no teachers coordinating the process live from their desks either. Basically, today’s online education involves an authorized institution, teachers that conceive and organize the modules, the students that access and download the materials, as well as the testing phase, the graduation and the diploma status issues. Students may get additional resources via mail, print textbooks or receive included laboratory supplies.
Tackling online-only education – not so recent as it might seem
A 2013 article from The Atlantic mentioned how MIT was considering more comprehensive massive open online courses (MOOCs) that presumed certain costs for the interested students and an identity-verification process. The purpose of this was to actually cut individual costs in education and not increase them. Since this learning method was not constraint by the available classroom space or by the teachers’ schedule availability, the potential number of interested students could well compensate the lower costs per student and bring in an equal (or even higher) revenue for the educational institution.
Underlining that the case above concerned higher education, we may nevertheless go on by noticing that three years later we find news on the public virtual terms in reserved, wobbly terms. The online only system didn’t take off, although it continues to exist and even grows steadily. Online schools remain a valuable option for some – an option without which their life would be harder and perhaps prone to less education. However, it is less likely for schools to organize themselves solely around this type of education or to count on their exclusively online students for their existence.
A 2015 source notes that 12,000 students from the elementary and secondary cycle attend full-time online courses at Texas schools. What is the meaningful context to this number? Enrollment figures for Texas public schools show that in 2014-2015 412,338 children enrolled in the grade 1 educational system (with some variables, this is the average number for each grade) – therefore the 12,000 students mentioned above are but a very small fraction of the total number of active students in this state. Online-only is stalling, and is still perceived as an exception.
The Center for Education Reform lists the number of total K-12 full time online school enrollment as closing to 310,000 students (2013 figures, page updated in February 2016) – so the total number of K-12 online students per United States equals the number of students enrolled in one grade per Texas in a year.
Online education as a sustainable alternative
Even when location or schedule requirements do impose virtual online schools as the only option, other circumstances might transform this type of education into a considerably interesting alternative.
For example, saving money when choosing online courses instead of scheduled in-person classes might be important for some students. Others may find it hard to follow through a usual school schedule, even if theoretically it is not impossible – I have known people who started several courses but did not manage to graduate from neither of them because they required a far greater power of will and perseverance than they disposed of in attending the mandatory classes.
When above a certain age and able to make an informed decision, some students might just prefer online only courses, because they are cost saving, more flexible in what the schedule is concerned and do not require forced socialization.
Online education is a convenient option, once the person choosing this educational system finds it is best suited for him or her
The matter of choice however is different with younger students – they are not fully aware of all the implications of solitude, individual work and isolation. The parents have to make the decision and then again, if this type of education is not enforced by circumstances, the effects are questionable. Children benefit from socializing, even with its not-so-pleasant moments; they develop their social skills and set landmarks in the way they perceive peers and adults by real life interactions; such acquired abilities are equally valuable to the actual gained knowledge. Of course, online schools provide real-time interactions, support and tutorials, as well as field trips and events for classmates to know each other. However, seeing your virtual colleagues on such occasions is different from sharing everyday courses with them.
Therefore, online education seems to remain, as it always was, a convenient supplement, even if the circumstances changed over time. Online-only education still brings to mind exceptional or temporary situations, as the low attendance numbers prove it.