In the 21st century, online learning will constitute 50% of all learning and education. The rapid rise of learning on the Internet will occur not because it is more convenient, cheaper, or faster, but because cognitive learning on the Internet is better than learning in-person. Of the growing number of experts seeing this development, Gerald Celente, author of the popular book Trends 2000, summarizes it most succinctly: “Interactive, on-line learning will revolutionize education. The education revolution will have as profound and as far-reaching an effect upon the world as the invention of printing. Not only will it affect where we learn; it also will influence how we learn and what we learn" (Celente, 1997, p. 249). Recent research reported in the Washington Post cites studies showing that online learning is equally as effective as learning in-person. And note that we state "cognitive learning," not all learning.
It is still very early in the development of online learning. But the outlines of the potential of online learning are already emerging. The best guide to the next century lies in history, and the in examples of technological transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The automobile and tractor were the driving forces for the Industrial Age. The tractor eventually was demonstrated to not only cover more acres than a horse drawn plow, but to plow deeper (read: better) and thus increase productivity .
Some sectors of society clung to the horse drawn vehicle, of course. The military still had a cavalry in 1939 to confront Hitler’s tanks before the obvious mismatch was addressed (Davis, 1993). The tractor changed education for the 20th century as well. Prior to the tractor and automobile, one room schoolhouses were placed every six miles so that a child would only have to walk at most three miles to school. The one room schoolhouse necessitated one teacher and multiple grade levels in one room. With the automobile, people moved into towns, and even rural residents could take buses to school, thus causing school consolidation and the eventual all-but-extinction of the one room schoolhouse. In the State of Washington, for example, between 1935 and 1939 almost 20% of rural one room schoolhouses were closed (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1945).
And when online learning is combined with a more interactive and facilitative in-person learning, it will easily out perform today’s outmoded one-size-fits-
Here are a few of the effects of online learning that will occur in just a few years:
* The average class size for an online course will be 1,000 participants;
* The average cost of an online course will plummet to below $100 a course;
* There will be hundreds of thousands of topics from which learners can choose.
But perhaps the most devastating and revolutionary change will be how the Internet will change how we learn. Because as we enter the Information Age, the era of lifelong learning, the era of online learning, distance has nothing to do with "distance education." By this I mean that even when the teacher is in close proximity to the learners, the quality of the cognitive learning and teaching will be higher when the cognitive part of the learning is conducted over the Internet. Keoko University in Japan, for example, is already establishing online learning for its on-campus students (Eisenstodt, 1997).
In this article I will outline what we already know and can forecast about how the Internet and online learning will change how we learn. We know, for example, that the economic force driving life in the 21st century will be the microchip and the Internet, just as the automobile was the economic force for change in the 20th century. And we know that business will need its workers to learn more, more quickly, and at a lower cost, to remain competitive. We will show that these market forces will create the need and desirability for online learning.
How We Learn Today
For most of history the standard educational setting has been an instructor (or teacher, leader, presenter, or speaker) standing in front of a group of people. This is the most common learning design in society, whether it be for college credit classes, noncredit courses, training in business and industry, high school instruction, or even a Sunday School class.
Basically, 90% of all education has been "information transfer," the process of transferring information and knowledge from the teacher’s head into the heads of the learners. To do that, teachers have had to talk most of the time. And right up until today that mode of delivery has been the most effective, most efficient, most desirable way to learn.
But as educators we know that the traditional lecture is not the only way to learn. We as learners learn in many different ways, at different times, and from a variety of sources (Knowles, 1973). We also know that learning is not purely a cognitive process, but that it also involves the emotions and even the spirit (Apps, 1991).
The Internet is destroying the traditional educational delivery system of an instructor speaking, lecturing or teaching in front of one or more learners.
The whole discipline of self-directed learning, variously called adult learning or adult education, has shown that the traditional delivery system is only one way to learn. The Internet represents the biggest technological aid helping people to learn in 500 years, according to many educators (Thieme, 1996).
What the Internet is doing is to explode the traditional method of teaching into two parts-- cognitive learning, which can be accomplished better with online learning; and affective learning, which can be accomplished better in a small group discussion setting.
Why cognitive learning can be done better on the Internet
Cognitive learning includes facts, data, knowledge, mental skills-- what you can test. And information transfer and cognitive learning can be achieved faster, cheaper and better online.
There are several ways that online learning can be better than classroom learning, such as:
* A learner can learn during her or his peak learning time. My peak learning time is from 10 am to noon. My step-son’s peak learning time is between midnight and 3 am. He recently signed up for an Internet course and is looking for a couple more, because as he put it, "I have a lot of free time between midnight and 3 am." With traditional in-person classes, only some learners will be involved during their peak learning time. The rest will not fully benefit.
* A learner can learn at her or his own speed. With traditional classes, a learner has one chance to hear a concept, technique or piece of knowledge. With online learning, a learner can replay a portion of audio, reread a unit, review a video, and retest him or herself.
* A learner can focus on specific content areas. With traditional classes, each content area is covered and given the relative amount of emphasis and time that the teacher deems appropriate. But in a ten unit course, a given learner will not need to focus on each unit equally. For each of us, there will be some units we know already and some where we have little knowledge. With online learning, we as learners can focus more time, attention and energy on those units, modules or sections of the course where we need the most help and learning.
* A learner can test himself daily. With online learning, a learner can take quizzes and tests easily, instantly receiving the results and finding out how well she or he is doing in a course.
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