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The Coming of Age of Online Education

Musings on last week's New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference

By Rukmini Banerjee

Rukmini Banerjee is currently in her second year of the M.A. in Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University. As a student in India and the United States, Rukmini has worked for a number of organizations including Save the Children, US Institute of Peace, and The Turkish Red Crescent Society (Ankara). She is presently working as an intern with Ashoka's Empathy Initiative. Her main areas of interest include women and children's rights, education, and refugee rehabilitation.

September 27, 2013

The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference, held in New York City on Tuesday, September 17th, brought together preeminent thought leaders in technology, business, politics, education, and philanthropy to explore the potential opportunities presented by online learning. The highlight of the morning sessions was Sal Khan’s keynote, wherein he claimed that "we are at a special moment in history" for education, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) seeking to provide world-class education for everyone – and not just a cheap approximation of a ‘good education’ to kids who are otherwise unable to afford it.

An important question arising from Sal Khan’s observation is this: How does one define a ‘good education’? What is that essential component of a good education that online learning is able to provide to everyone, and just as well as traditional learning? The question was briefly touched upon, with one of the speakers suggesting that in present times, what parents and children are looking for is a definition of success, and that success is increasingly being translated as success in career and success in life. In essence, an education that increases the students’ chance at being successful is often considered to be a ‘good education’.

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Critical thinking, analysis, and communication are some key components of an effective education, according to former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who believes that online education can teach these more efficiently, as the curriculum designers who start from scratch "don’t have all the department meetings to go to." More importantly, online education gives children a sense of purpose and choice: they know what the learning goals are, and they can pick the method or technique they want to use in order to achieve their goals.

On the other hand, an important limitation to the widespread use of MOOCs or online education in general was raised intermittently in a number of sessions: the digital divide that exists within society. Not every family has a computer at home, and not every school has access to such technology. This digital divide poses a big problem to the potentiality of technology in education. Other factors restricting online education include the level of motivation of students (which is often dependent on whether or not such online courses are paid) and the level of validity and authenticity attributed to such degrees by potential employers.

At the end of every session, the speakers took questions coming through live tweets from the audience. An interesting question was put forward by Joseph Ugoretz (@jugoretz): How do we incorporate humanity, ethics, and social empathy into online learning? Sal Khan addressed this question by saying that whether history or philosophy, online education can always help with the scaffold. It can help with writing and critical thinking. Humanity, ethics, and the question of social empathy were, however, not addressed.

Instead of regarding online learning as an efficient ‘alternative’ to traditional education systems, several speakers seemed to be of the opinion that the use of technology in the field of education can serve as an effective tool used by teachers to enhance and improve students’ learning experience. Amherst College President Biddy Martin (@Biddy_Martin) emphasized the need for residential learning and online education to integrate as well. According to Martin, apart from being significant economic drivers, colleges and university systems value the delicacy of human to human interactions. Moreover, they form inter-generational communities to which people get attached. Colleges and universities contribute toward the building of international and inter-ethnic democracy – something that should never be foregone. They create a sense of attachment to a particular place and the desire to preserve natural systems.

At the end of day – Martin added – the mastery of a conglomeration of courses is not the whole of what residential or traditional classroom education offers.