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Delivering on the Promise of Online Education

Fast Company asked the Provost of UNext’s Cardean University, Geoffrey M. Cox, “Do online education and training click?”

My short and all-too-simple answer is, of course! If I did not believe that there is a bright and important future for online learning, I would not have left a senior position at Stanford University to join UNext.com and its online university, Cardean. I have voted with my feet and have no regrets. I am convinced that joining new communications technology with a new focus on teaching and learning will produce extraordinary results.

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Digging deeper, there are three levels at which online learning must succeed if it is to become pervasive. Each level brings its own challenge.

Technological. Without a truly effective delivery system, it doesn’t really matter how good the courses and training materials happen to be. And for all of the enthusiasm about how the Internet is changing every aspect of our lives, the fact is that most of the world’s population either isn’t connected or is connected at very low bandwidth.

The power of the Internet is in its capacity to deliver a variety of learning tools. Text, sound, graphics, video, chat, and search all have their uses in online courses. If students don’t have access to all of them, their learning will be constrained.

Fortunately, there are incentives for others to solve the bandwidth problem, and online educators can ride the wave. The sooner, the better.

Pedagogical. The most important thing about online learning is learning. The question is whether people can use this new medium to gain real knowledge that they otherwise would not have access to.

This question has already been answered by lots of successful examples. But certain conditions must be present for online learning to be effective. Students must be motivated, must start with some relevant background knowledge, and must have access to a community of peers and mentors with whom they can communicate easily. Given those conditions, online learning works. Online providers must make sure that these conditions are met, along with providing authoritative, compelling content.

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Financial. Education is big business, whether it’s in the not-for-profit sector or the for-profit end of business. In either case, is there enough financial incentive to make online education businesses profitable? So far, confidence remains very high. Some financial analysts think that the potential market is as much as a trillion dollars. Even if they are off by several orders of magnitude, online education could be a big industry.

The economics of online education work because of scale. Those companies that can afford to invest heavily in technology and pedagogy will have great educational products. Those investments will be justified only if the market responds and if large numbers of people begin paying to learn online. To develop a market, we must convince people to start thinking of their computers as personal learning machines, as well as personal entertainment machines and shopping machines. That mind shift will take time.

We’ve seen enough glimpses of the future to be very optimistic about the future of online learning!

Geoffrey M. Cox (cox@unext.com) is provost of Cardean University and vice president for academic affairs and continuing education at UNext.com, the parent company of Cardean.

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