The State of Online Education

It’s a nice thought that “we’re never done learning”. One quick look around you at the world and it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than “yup, most of us do actually stop learning very soon on in life”. It’s a shame too, because if we didn’t, we’d have teleportation, time travel and hover cars by now.

Whether bad experiences of formal education or simply not seeing the point is to blame, the majority will rarely read to enrich, nor study to better ourselves.

And yet the Internet provides us with, what is in my opinion at least, the most open and user friendly learning environment known to man. Largely for free too. Textbooks, journals, notes, essays and presentations which were largely restricted to those attending ‘regular’ universities just a few years ago are accessible to people all over the world regardless of age, location or income. But is online learning on par with traditional ‘college education’?

Open University

Before the Internet became so widespread, and I was still a kid, I remember annoying interruptions to my cartoons for distance learning courses; obviously targeting stay-at-home parents minding their offspring. I was more worried about the cut-off time for Nickelodeon broadcast (no satellite TV in my home!) than DIY accountancy courses. Telecommuting to college must have been a ray of light for many but it was hardly as convienient as regular university. Now it’s as easy as signing up for Facebook with OU – plus at the end you get a very well recognized accreditation. The Open University is the world’s leading online educator with millions of students having been awarded degrees and other qualifications. It’s cheaper than attending regular university (in the US) and is totally flexible allowing the user to learn at their own pace.

The structure of the majority of their awards follows a standard model of building up enough credits over several modules (subjects) in your field of study until enough are attained for a degree to be awarded.

Easy to use interface with hundreds of study options

Easy to use interface with hundreds of study options

The actual learning process requires willpower and a lot of dedication on the student’s part. That said, you’re not alone. The OU campus in the UK is probably the only university campus where there are more lecturers and faculty than students. It’s their job to provide students all over the world with 24/7 support, help and guidance in subjects areas such as science, languages, mathematics, computing, engineering and psychology.

This support is delivered via several different avenues including video lectures, notes, course materials and suggested reading. You also have one-on-one time with lectures and tutors via email, Skype or telephone where they can assist you in your studies.

Exams are sat with fellow OU students all over the world at localized testing centers.

What’s it REALLY like to study online?

All colleges and universities will sell themselves as the best place in the world. Online institutions are no different. But what’s it like to get a degree online? Well, our own Web.AppStorm editor, Matthew Guay, recently attained his Bachelors of Science in Computer Information Systems from Florida Institute of Technology via their online study options.

I asked Matthew to tell me what he thought the differences were between traditional college, an e-learning.

I think the biggest difference is lack of interaction with others and socialization. Education-wise, while I often felt like I wasn’t directed enough with studies, friends in traditional colleges shared the same frustrations, so I think it was really similar overall.

Matthew, although from the US, is currently living in Thailand where he works as a missionary.

The very best part is the ability to do college anywhere, so I got a US education from a small town in Thailand. It helped me fit school around work, which gave me more options than a traditional college would. It let me keep the life I wanted, where I wanted, while studying, and that’s awesome.

Of course challenges are encountered when it comes to staying on track and resisting the urge to procrastinate.

Staying motivated to finish and stay on schedule was my biggest challenge, by far. But that’s something everyone faces, especially if you’re already being successful career-wise before graduating. It’s also easy to put off stuff when you’re at home and don’t have to “go” to college. If you’re taking online classes without strict deadlines, you need to make fake ones and force yourself to keep them.

Other Online Options

For many of us, formal accreditation either isn’t so important or we only want to learn specific skills too small to justify an entire course. For example, I taught myself several key areas of web development and design in order to build and maintain personal websites. I did this all via online tutorials and articles available on blogs, YouTube videos and helpful forums. No credit card information required.

Envato’s own Tuts+ network offer both free and premium content for uses in areas such as Photoshop, programming and web design. Many of the editors and authors here on the AppStorm network also create awesome tutorials over there, so it’s definitely worth a look.

Awesome videos that dominate even the most daunting of computer applications

Awesome videos that dominate even the most daunting of computer applications

Some online learning facilities are dedicated to taking amateur computer users and turning them into competent technicians. For example, Lynda.com provides users with a whole hosts of subject areas in the computing field such as web development, photoshop, e-commerce and administration tools such as Excel. For a monthly or annual subscription you can access any of the high-quality tutorials. All the videos are easy-to-understand and take things nice and slow, without being boring.

The quality is second to none. While screencasts are available for free on YouTube, if you actually want to sit down and conquer a specific area, software program or system then Lynda is your best friend. A monthly subscription is just $25 and it’s definitely worth every cent for such a great learning tool.

Also, anyone familiar with TED Talks will tell you that not only are they a great educational resource they’re extremely inspiring. Thousands of experts have given talks over the past few year in fields such as science, technology, politics and sociology. The incredible presentations are all available on TED.com. Every time I visit I find it impossible to not click on a video. They’re so good that my lectures use them in class from time to time.

Open Course Ware

OpenCourseWare is a world-wide collaboration by real-world colleges to make home learning more accessible and above all else; free. You won’t get a formal accreditation or the same level of teaching but you will receive online video lectures, class notes and assignments which you can work your way through.

I’ve found MIT to be one of the best providers with hundreds of OpenCourseWare courses available online.

Free lectures, notes and assignments without even signing up

Free lectures, notes and assignments without even signing up

When you decide which course you want to do you can see all the material set out in front of you. It’s up to you to watch the lectures and read the course material before tackling the assignments. When you come out the other end of the course you should be ready to put you new skills to use.

Of course the major failure in the eyes of many is the lack of formal accreditation or even lecturer feedback. And while I acknowledge that because of this OCW might not be for everyone, it is a spectacular resource for those who want to get an education instead of just a piece of paper with their name on it. As somebody currently attending traditional college, I’ve also found OCW and other online resources such as YouTube to be of great help as a study aid.

Great Web Apps for Online Students

Google Docs is my personal favorite. Not because it’s anything superbly functional that rivals desktop apps; but because it has saved my ass countless times. The auto-save feature and the security that comes along with being hosted on a Google server is a breath of fresh air. Anyone whose had a file corrupt or thumb drive go missing the night before a deadline will know what I’m taking about.

An epic app for keeping notes and accessing them anywhere.

An epic app for keeping notes and accessing them anywhere.

Evernote is a great note taking tool. Their online web app is as functional as the desktop version and allows you to create, organise and view your own notes anywhere. The fact that there are versions available for just about every mobile platform out there allows you to take notes on your Android, view then on your iPad, edit them on your desktop and then share them with friends online. Fantastic.

WolframAlpha is another great tool to help with assignments, science, engineering, maths and just about any other logical question you can ask it. Using complex algorithms, the search engine retrieves results it believes answer your query and displays them in charts, graphs and the written word.

I’d like to conclude by saying that while open learning can be an intriguing undertaking on a personal level, it also matters greatly in a world where many have had only basic access to primary level education. The US Department of Education have recently launched a publicity campaign to push open learning, with information here. There has never been a better time to expand your horizons and make change happen. And whether you’re studying in a traditional college on-campus or studying on your own pace online, the web is a great resource to make your education better and more well-rounded, wherever you are.