The Relentless Tide of Online Learning


Last week, three pieces of information came my way that made me both excited and pensive about the future of education and learning.

The first was a conversation I had with a learning professional in a major corporation who told me that they were trying to figure out how to best curate online content, including content from MOOCs (aka, massive open online courses) for their employees.

The second was an article about how the online learning content platform Udemy was able to raise $12 million in series B financing. That site allows instructors to post videos, presentations and the like so students can take courses across a wide range of categories. Some of the content is offered for free, and some is behind a paywall. It has a very entrepreneurial model. TechCrunch reports, “Udemy has attracted about 400K registered students and a quarter of its approved instructors have made at least $10K from selling their courses on the site — with some even seeing six-figure earnings.”

The third piece of information came in my Sunday newspaper (yes, an actual paper edition) in the form of an articleby my alma mater’s president. In it, he defended the virtues of a traditional four-year liberal arts education while baldly stating that “the notion that online courses constitute a real alternative to a traditional college education…is about as close to nonsense as you can get.”

His piece made me both nostalgic and wistful: nostalgic because I was the beneficiary of the kind of intimate but intense college education he champions, and wistful because it’s clear to me that such articles are inevitable signs of a passing age. When he refers to online education as “the latest education fad,” how can we avoid conjuring up all those 1990s articles about how the Internet itself was a fad?

Online courses are likely to change not just the future of college education but of learning in general. In fact, TechCrunch notes that Udemy “recently began to partner with universities to offer leadership development solutions, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Udemy continue to begin more aggressively pursuing B2B offerings, like enterprise training or education solutions for employers.

The conventional paradigms are rapidly morphing into structures that are hard to predict. Of course, four-year colleges with live instructors and real classrooms will not disappear overnight. But when college presidents take the time and make the effort to critique online innovations as fads, you know there’s a sense of threat in the air.

It reminds me of something I learned years ago when I was getting my own degree: it is the story of King Canute, who had his throne carried down to the sea and then commanded the tide not to wet his robes. The sea, of course, drenched him (which was probably Canute’s point, by the way, because he then proclaimed how seas obey eternal laws rather the power of kings).

Likewise, however nostalgic we become about the educational and instructional approaches of the past, we can be sure the tides of history and technology will continue to surge, changing the ways all of us learn.

– Mark Vickers

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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