Varieties Of Online Learning

Ask anyone what 'Online Learning' means and you know why they think it is a poor alternative of the classroom learning, the real thing. 'Online Learning' is mostly reading texts and watching video online, and that dreaded 'forum', which is about talking to each other but 'not for me'. This picture is consistent, as even the proponents of Online Learning would often concede that those who can afford college, should go to college.

But, while the advocates of Online Learning may make its case based on affordability, its costs at the point of delivery is insufficiently understood: The learner has to find appropriate device (or devices), data plans, quiet spaces and required self-discipline. If the popular 'Total Cost of Ownership' estimation was ever applied, Online Learning is not a cheap alternative. 

Despite this paradox, that its costs and promises are not in sync, Online Learning became wildly popular because of one thing: Degrees. The global demand for Degrees soared since the 1990s, with emergence of Global Workflows and expansion of Service Economy, and indeed, the accompanying contraction of industrial economy and powers of workers' unions from protecting its members from redundancy and retrenchment. One of the premises of Middle Class Economics and accompanying politics, both on Left and Right of the spectrum, was about more people in college. Online Learning promised a cheap and easy way to accomplish just that.

If degrees helped Online Learning, it did not work the other way around, though. Availability of Online Learning undermined the need for Formal Learning. With recession setting in and Middle Class Economics failing to deliver - and we are perhaps seeing its final act, the breaking of the Emerging Markets, now - the link between Degrees and Middle Class bliss was somewhat broken. It did not help that various Technology investors and entrepreneurs prophecied the 'End of College', rightly equating it to State Power and pointing out its commercial irrelevance, but perhaps wrongly overlooking the umbilical chord that ties college and middle class societies together.

In this muddle, Online Learning has now lost its charm, and importantly, its meaning. Technologies of Information and Communication have made great progress in the intervening years, opening up great possibilities of connecting people and enabling Global Workflows, something that existing conceptions of Online Learning totally overlook. Its essential paradox of High Costs (it is justifiable to argue that Online Learning merely shifts the costs from the institution to the learners) and Low Value is now exposed, once the attraction of Degrees plateued out.

So, in a way, this is the best and worst time for Online Educators. Never before has there been such possibilities of innovation - of creating different models, of doing things which can not be done in the classroom, of creating better and different education. At the same time, the term is much maligned, the field much too narrow and its premises suspect, a business dominated by the unscruplous and the silly, a market for lemons, in all senses!  Time has come, therefore, to recognise that there are varieties of Online Learning, and it is important to find the right descriptors for the different kinds. Because, otherwise, if you start using the term 'Online Learning', regardless of any effort to qualify the term, you will be boxed - in the beautiful but doomed prison of pointless degrees and painful education.


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