Online education isn’t ’way of the future’ just yet

University experience shouldn’t be spent entirely in front of a computer screen

The increasing use of online education begs the question of whether the traditional lecture is relevant in a sea of digital content. If students could complete all of their university credits online from their homes, without ever stepping onto a campus or out of their sweatpants, why would they choose a traditional path to a university degree?

A student at Athabasca University, which heralds itself as a leader in online and distance education, recently expressed his enthusiasm for his online education experience in the Financial Post, calling it “the way of the future.”

“Athabasca doesn’t even use a fraction of the technology tools available to them. If the government would charter another modern online university, it would be an even more viable option for more students,” Ian Heikoop, a second year student in business management, wrote. He went on to explain that the flexibility of his online courses allows him to run his own business and be more heavily involved in his community.

“You can’t tell me that I’m not getting any experience or working on personal, teamwork, and leadership skills as I study online,” he wrote.

His experience may reflect a growing zeal for online education that doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down. A 2010 report  conducted by the Sloan Consortium found that the number of students taking at least one course online rose from 1.6 million in fall 2002 to 5.58 million in fall 2009, according to Inside Higher Education. A survey conducted by the WICHE Cooperative of Educational Technologies also found that 96 percent of the 183 colleges and universities surveyed expected the number of students enrolled in online courses at their institutions to increase in the next three years.

While the convenience of online courses may make educational content more accessible, there is a valuable argument that when students enroll in university, they aren’t paying solely for the content of their lectures, but for the university experience as well. Going to class may be a pain sometimes, but I don’t think sitting in front of a computer screen can compete with the experience of sitting in on a dynamic lecture. Online education also doesn’t give students the opportunity to meet students and instructors they can bounce ideas off of and who can feed their curiosity in a subject. Even if an online course comes equipped with a chat room, it would be hard to measure it up to the colloquial experience of a classroom.

When balanced with traditional forms of teaching, online education does give students a degree of flexibility in their education that past generations never had, as was the case with Heikoop’s experience. However, while some may proclaim that online education is the way of the future, I doubt that most students believe that their university experience would be better spent at home.