College in Two Dimensions: The Future of Online Learning

Though the concept of taking college courses online is nothing new, not all online schools are accredited institutions of higher learning. That may be one of the main reasons that many students still look to a more traditional university setting to earn their education. However, some of those schools are now exploring the possibility of offering online courses to their students. Mostly, though, universities aren't ready to take that plunge completely.

Technology in the Classroom

Anyone who's been inside a college classroom in the last decade call tell you that the Internet has infiltrated the way students learn. Spiral-bound notebooks have been replaced by notebooks by HP or Apple. There's no need to pass notes when you can IM someone your witty remarks on the way your professor's dressed. Some students don't even buy textbooks anymore, instead downloading the required books onto their laptops or iPads as PDF files.

love that computer

It stands to reason, then, that some universities would want to cut out the middleman (or middle-classroom) and embrace the digital age head-on. So it is that several prestigious institutions have begun developing online curricula that their students can engage in without leaving their bedrooms.

Computerized Instructors

Steps toward a digital classroom have been fairly minimal, but significant growth has been made even in the past few years. However, the digital instructor ball got rolling as early as 1960, when the University of Illinois developed PLATO, computer software that provides personalized instruction to students at all academic levels from grade school on up. The PLATO software can respond to individual student needs and even quiz pupils on what they've learned.

Recently, Carnegie Mellon University has expanded on Illinois' experiment by investing millions of dollars to develop sophisticated online courses in 13 subjects, including many sciences, economics and French. The school calls this the Open Learning Initiative. 'Open' refers to the fact that students and instructors from other institutions are invited to use the courses for their own credit, as long as the student's home college is responsible for overseeing course credit earned.

lecture hall classroom

A Little of that Human Touch

Online education outlets also exist for those who crave the presence of a real-life instructor. The website Academicearth.org exists as a repository of knowledge presented by some of the world's premiere lecturers, who've recorded and uploaded their classroom instruction in fields as diverse as astronomy, political science and writing. Ivy League bastions like Yale, Harvard and UCLA contribute video to this site, and it can be accessed at any time for free. It also offers complimentary coursework like syllabi, reading lists and class projects.

The Current Climate

Despite newly available, rich resources in the world of accredited online learning, no brick and mortar academic institution has made the digital jump completely yet. Partially, this is due to resistance from professionals in the field, and understandably so. In February 2011, the New York Times talked to several educators who didn't wholeheartedly embrace the notion of a digital classroom. Even the head of the Open Learning Initaitive, Candace Thill, noted 'There is something motivating about the student's relationship with the instructor... that would be absent if each took the course in a software-only environment.'

Indeed, the notion of universities existing without teachers seems at least odd and at worst a tremendous mistake. Still, the recent online availability of free knowledge from experts in a variety of fields can't be a bad thing, and it has many uses besides taking the place of a university course - supplemental or continuing education post-graduation, for instance. Experts think that it'll be awhile before any university takes their curriculum online completely. 'Any tuition-driven, private university would have a hard time being the first one to make a change as drastic as offering an entirely automated course,' scholar Taylor Walsh told the New York Times. But fret not, students: just try wearing your pajamas to class anyway.

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