The online learning revolution: 7 ways the face of adult education is changing

(Prodigy Finance, 19th April 2013) There is no doubt that a boom is happening in online education. The traditional model of on-campus studying has some hot competition with rising interest in Massive Open Online Course, or MOOCs. According to College Atlas, there are more than 4 million students taking online courses, and that number is set to rise each year.

Online education is the first trend we’re taking a deeper look at as part of our ‘7 ways the face of adult education is changing’ series.

The popularity of the online course is indeed at a high – to the point where it has led to the birth of new institutions whose sole focus is to provide online learning.



Some of the major players in this regard include Udacity and Coursera (not to mention Khan Academy, edX and Udemy). As of 2012, Udacity had registered students in 203 countries, the best represented being the US (42%) and India (7%). Coursera sees around 1.4 million enrollments each month and is also decidedly international, with more than 196 countries on their platform.

The founding of Udacity is an excellent example of how the popularity of online learning sparked the fruition of these portals. Sebastian Thrun decided to offer Stanford’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course online for free – and the interest generated was well beyond expectation. Nicholas Carr explains in his article ‘The Crisis in Higher Education’:

“…Thrun imagined that enrollment might reach 10,000 students, the actual number turned out to be more than an order of magnitude higher. When the class began, in October 2011, some 160,000 people had signed up.”

But, as Carr shares, established institutions have also jumped on the bandwagon:

“…many of the country’s leading universities, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, are offering free classes over the Net, and more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them. These “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, are earning praise for bringing outstanding college teaching to multitudes of students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it, including those in remote places and those in the middle of their careers…”



This, of course, highlights the many beauties of online learning, and how it is revolutionizing education:

Accessibility - Students from anywhere, and at any life stage, can participate in online education. While the US accounts for approximately 35% of the world’s online learning audience, there is a great deal of interest from emerging markets – countries such as China and India are catching up quickly in terms of creating their own platforms for MOOCs, and translating existing courses into their home languages.

Affordability - Average tuition fees at a public, four-year college have increased 5.6% annually since 2000, unlike online courses which are cheaper and also exclude transport or living costs as is the case with attending college.

Flexibility - Learners can fit their coursework into their schedule when it’s convenient for them. This naturally means that online learning can cater to a much wider audience – college students who want to take extra courses, professionals with full-time jobs, students working across different time zones, and so forth.

Greater efficiency and reach - Online courses can be offered to a greater number of students, an area where on-campus courses are limited. For example, Thrun calculated that through the first AI course he offered online he was able to reach more students than most university professors would in an entire career.

Online learning courses, both through universities and specialised MOOC providers, are certainly transforming education through improved availability and reach to a wider audience across the globe. Additionally, the online nature allows learning behaviours and interactions with lectures, exercises and assignments to be tracked.  This can provide invaluable insights into the best teaching methods across subjects, allowing continuous improvement of the courses available online.

But while this transformation is apparent, it is doubtful that the MOOC model will replace traditional on-campus learning entirely. The quality of face-to-face interaction with fellow students and lecturers cannot be compared. Online learning is, however, a great complimentary option to a traditional university education–and there is evidence that such “blended” education aids student learning.