One of the promises of the Internet was to make education easier to deliver and more robust in its application. We dreamed two decades ago of teaching our students and those around the world in ways that simply weren't possible without the connectivity associated with online networks. Now, it seems that education has finally caught up.
It isn't just the traditional educational institutions that are having an impact. Online-only educational startups are popping up while established companies like Google are making their own play. Effectiveness often comes down to size. How many courses are offered? How many resources are available for support? How large is the infrastructure behind the learning?
Let's take a look at the three major types of organizations getting involved with online education to see how size really matters when it comes to results.
The Old Schools: Harvard and MIT
When one thinks of higher education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is often top of mind. The neighbor to Harvard has a long history of taking the brightest minds and making them brighter. It's not a surprise that they teamed up to become one of the innovators in the online education arena.
With $60 million invested between them to improve their online educational offerings through a nonprofit organization they are calling "edX," they intend to expand their presence as the leader in online universities for research schools.
Students will not receive credits for their activities, but they may be able to pay for a certificate of completion.
"MIT's and Harvard's mission is to provide affordable education to anybody who wants it," Anant Agarwal, an MIT computer science and artificial intelligence expert who is edX's first president, told the Los Angeles Times. "Millions of people in the world don't have access to quality education."
Unlike most offerings from traditional colleges, these will be offered to the general public, not just paying students.
The Specialists: Course Hero
Online education isn't always about rocket science. It could be argued that the more imperative need is not in higher education but in preparatory education where public schools are often stretched too thin to offer proper education for children outside of the norm. Excellent students are often left unchallenged while challenged students are often left behind.
Course Hero, a startup out of Redwood City, CA, is focused on implementing programs and delivering resource to help students succeed regardless of their learning position. One such program is Optimal Learn, a digital flash-card system that utilizes the principles of spaced repetition and the learning curve to take advantage o natural memory cycles.
"Flashcards are an age-old study tool that aren’t used to their greatest potential," Andrew Grauer, CEO of Course Hero, said earlier this year. "Digitizing flashcards—adding the ability to create, save, collaborate and share sets online—was the first step in improving the flashcard model."
The company offers materials at every level of education and includes study document, tutors, full courses, and video lectures. Perhaps most interesting about the Course Hero style is their use of real and virtual rewards to keep students motivated. Students can unlock badges by completing tasks. These achievement are popular in the growing gamification trend that has proven effective, particularly at the student age level.
American students in particular can benefit from such styles of teaching.
The Dabbler: Google
Every few month, it seems as if Google gets a wild hair and decides to throw their hat in the educational arena. They have Apps for Education, Professional Development for Teachers, various resources for students, and special programs for schools to use their software.
Still, their attempts at direct involvement in education have not been very successful to date. They envisioned having a Chromebook in every school in America someday; currently it would be hard to find a school that does. They are having challenges with putting books online and having them easily indexed despite specializing in such things. Even their social network, Google+, which lightly mentioned the educational potential of features such as Hangouts, has yet to make a splash.
Why would they be on this list? The potential. Google, more than any other company, has the desire to make it work, the clout to make it happen, and the potential technology to make it easy. They are already embedded in the daily education of the entire society; when we want to learn about something, we are most likely to Google it.
With so much potential, they must be a player some day. It's a matter of focus. If they would stop dabbling and put in the effort they could change the world to what it was supposed to be by now in terms of worldwide education.
Perhaps they should buy CourseHero (or Harvard/MIT, for that matter). Regardless of what they do, their efforts thus far have only been the tip of the iceberg.