Online Education : The Challenges Ahead

Online Education sites have become very popular. As someone who credits a large part of his success to the knowledge imparted by others via various means like formal degree, websites, books, etc – it seems to be just right that web based education is taking off in a big way, since the quest for knowledge never ends.

I guess Khan Academy was the tipping point in the whole online education space. Since the beginning of this year, I have come across multiple online sites like Codeacademy, Code School, Coursera and many more. I cannot even remember the number of sites that have been popping up every now and then, which offer courses written by professionals or from some of the top universities in the world.

At first glance, it seems very attractive and I am sure that these sites have their legion of followers who are actively taking courses. What I find attractive is that to anyone who is interested, these sites give you courses that you could take based on your interest or current priority. For e.g. if I am looking at learning a specific technology and have just a weekend or so, I might most likely do that on Code School, if they have the course since the material is ready, relevant and complete in the form of lessons. On the other hand, if I want to do a course that is spread across months, has some assignments to submit and gives me a feel of actually doing a college like course, there are options available at other sites.

All is good then in the online education world. But there is a constant nagging thought that concerns me about these sites. It is not a problem per se with what the sites are doing but more about how they can take this whole movement to the next level. And here I mean by how does one get the masses involved into this whole movement. There are some solid marketing campaigns being done where they say that they want the whole world to code, etc. But I have spent enough years in the industry to read that, smile and move on. We definitely do not want the whole world to code but we definitely want that more industry professionals itself use these tools as a form of constant learning.

They are already doing that now but in very small numbers. Based on some discussions that I have had with people, here are some general level comments about what might need to still happen:

  • The Certificate problem: Everyone loves certifications, no matter how much one argues against them. Each of these sites do give a certificate of some sort on completion. But what value does it hold today? To explain the problem better, most folks are looking for better job opportunities and they are willing to invest time and money in stuff that can help them do that. If employers are willing to consider the certificates given by these online educational universities, the tide could change. Without any acknowledgement of that sort, it will only end up mostly with people who are interested in knowledge and doing it for the sheer joy of learning. In essence what I am trying to say here is that we need to understand what it will take for employers in the future to accept these certificates or degrees being given.
  • Online Identity: This is a challenging problem. Assuming that the first problem that I defined above i.e. of certificates being accepted gets solved, how does one verify that it was indeed the same person who actually completed the course and so on. Given that this is not a unique problem because it exists in the real physical world also. But organizations have come up with background checks, etc – so I don’t know how this would apply to online degrees.
  • Ranking Systems: It would be great to have a umbrella organization under which all these online course vendors/universities are affiliated too and an ecosystem emerges that can help consumers identify similar courses across all the vendors, ratings and so on. Maybe even a ranking system could evolve that could limit the number of folks joining a particular course at a particular university. Just a thought.
  • Quality: The top universities pride themselves on their quality and a large part of their success is also due to the way they filter who gets through a sometimes tough but necessary entrance qualification test/criteria. The way the current online education vendors are modeled, they don’t seem to particular worry about this aspect. The important part in their strategy is to grow and that means numbers. And if we talk about sheer numbers, it will mean that generally anyone with a machine and connection is a potential signup candidate. I could be wrong but the point I am making is to see if there are ways that the quality of folks taking it is upped in some way or the other.
  • Bandwidth: This is an issue in many parts of the world. There are pockets that are enjoying super speeds but when we average things out, it does not give a pretty picture and there are miles to go. But this is a problem that is going to continuously keep getting less relevant as time goes by, since Bandwidth investments are going up, people will have more spending power and the internet plan costs also move south.

These are just some initial thoughts. I am not working at any of the firms that provide these courses so I do not have the big picture neither the inside knowledge of what plans they have to tackle these issues. I am sure they do and I would love to hear from them or from anyone.

I look forward to your comments.

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