E-learning: The future of education?

If Bill Gates is excited about online education, you should be, too.

In a recent letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates focused on the power of the internet in improving and widening access to education. He states that the internet has changed so much of what we do — from buying airline tickets to voting in elections — and that it’s high time for the education sector to catch up in this dynamic field.

The scope for innovation is truly vast. The web contains the biggest store of information available to anyone in the world, and the internet is the widest-reaching and most democratic communication medium. A considerable amount of valuable information is already available, and universities in the US and Europe are using online tools to improve this content. Many universities are now posting video lectures, reading materials and other resources for free online. The range of materials covers everything from introductory videos and podcasts to advanced textbooks and detailed research — a true multimedia experience.

However, Gates says that it’s not enough just to have good content: it needs to be organised in a useful way and backed up with a solid teaching support network. It is difficult to test knowledge or prove capabilities without structured academic programs. But this is where the internet can truly shine: an online course is not hampered by physical constraints or the high costs of full-time, contact-based learning. One teacher can easily oversee and support many students from anywhere in the world, and learning can be done at the student’s pace, with access to a wider range of materials, discussions and resources than would be possible in a traditional physical learning environment.

The recent growth of ebooks and tablet computers, like the iPad, is fuelling the drive towards digital education. For the first time, institutions are thinking of innovative ways to incorporate digital content into learning programs. The potential to reach a global audience is also significant. And online learning need not be static or impersonal: on the contrary, it offers unparalleled opportunities for interactivity and open communication among students and teachers.

Another attractive feature of online learning is that it is much more accessible than traditional tuition. Since resources can be spread instantly and for free to anyone in the world, learning is immediate, affordable and rewarding. It does not attract the hidden costs of contact based learning, like transport, material and stationery costs, which makes it valuable for less-privileged students. It also allows working people to gain valuable education in the time available to them, so that they can increase their skills and improve their working lives.

Online education still faces many challenges — limited access to technology and low internet skills are considerable obstacles in South Africa — but the potential already exists. With the right educational approach, and with a solid support structure, online education could solve many of the problems that face education today: issues like lack of access to materials, lack of skilled teachers and children leaving schools to look after their families. For working people, it provides an affordable way to gain valuable skills and qualifications – and therefore better jobs.

Gates is optimistic that the internet can dramatically improve global education, as it has already affected so many other aspects of our lives. “A lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things.”

About the author: Anna Malczyk is the communications executive at GetSmarter, a specialist online training firm.

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