What Does Online Education Teach Us?

August 2nd, 2012 No Comments Other


In an Olympic year, much focus has been placed on the global community and how we can come together as a world of people. With technological advancements permeating countries around the world, from tablets used in classrooms in the United States, to small villages in third world countries using technology to learn and gain opportunities, society has seen a dramatic shift in the possibilities available that can help improve humanity.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times said it best when he said “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” One person who was inspired by this statement is Daphne Koller, a third generation PhD and professor at Stanford University.

Daphne Koller runs the research group DAGS, which stands for Daphne’s Approximate Group of Students. This group uses the power of artificial intelligence and computer science to solve real world complex problems. One of the biggest and most complex issues that Daphne Koller is inspired by is education and in particular, what can be learned from online education. Her research led her to start Coursera, an online portal that gives students around the globe free access to courses from top universities.

As I watched her at the TED conference express her passion around this topic, I too had my inner educator’s passion ignited.

She opened her talk with a story that I believe so many people can relate to from all across the world. She told of an event where the doors opened at Johannesburg University in South Africa to give the first people to sign up a chance at getting into the classes they wanted. Here, a stampede was caused by the desperation of people to seek an education and thereby a better life for themselves and their families. In this stampede, there were people who were killed all because they wanted to obtain the tools necessary to get a job and provide. In the United States, where I live, while we do not see stampedes, we do see some significant struggles and pressure put on students to get into the best college.

In Daphne Koller’s talk, she discussed one solution to this pressure that will open the door to allow more students into the class of their choosing from the institute of their choosing. This in turn will provide opportunity to people around the globe to get the education they need to thrive in life. The solution is online education.

To study the effects of this, Daphne Koller put her ideas into action to get real life proof of the benefits. Through Coursera, 4 Universities opened the door to a total of 43 classes for an unlimited number of participants all for free. Now, 640,000 students from 190 countries are able to attend these top ranked classes and do better for themselves.

This allowed researchers to stop hypothesizing and start using real data to learn about the efficacy of online education.

What they saw first came as no surprise. By moving away from the traditional 1 hour lecture setting found still in so many Universities across the globe, students were able to engage on different level with the curriculum. For some students who did not have as strong of a foundation in the course material, they could repeat the introduction and gain a stronger understanding up front. For others, they were able to focus on the details and the areas that were of particular difficulty for them.

In traditional classrooms, so many teachers struggle with different learning styles, so to be able to reinforce material and provide students with a way to watch and re-watch the material they struggle with, they were able to enhance learning.

Studies have shown that when a student engages with the material, their learning goes up. So the question then becomes, how can people do this without a teacher holding them accountable in a face-to-face setting? In fact, through technology, professors were able to put technology to work by adding in specific features to better engage students.

These technological advancements, such as interjecting a question into a video that requires every student to answer it correctly before moving on with the lecture, enhance the learning experience and force students to stay focused. In a traditional classroom, having each student answer a question to move forward would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

But in my opinion, one of the biggest and most beneficial findings was the community that was formed in the online education environment. As mentioned, students from over 190 countries were involved in these courses. Question and answer forums were formed to help students reach out for assistance throughout the course. Because of the global environment, response times to questions were an average of 22 minutes because there were always a pool of people in different time zones that were available to interact and engage in peer to peer learning.

And more importantly, this peer-to-peer learning with a pool of cultures opened the door to allow students to form their own groups and collaborate on a new level. In such a global world, learning how to interact with other cultures is incredibly valuable and can provide an even deeper education. With my background in International Business and my experience living overseas, I understand first-hand the importance of this valuable asset. By understanding how to learn and interact with another culture, education gets deeper and more can be learned besides what is printed in the book.

In the end, Daphne Koller gave her opinion on what online education means for the world and what the future holds for people and institutions who engage in this revolutionary style of learning. First, it opens the door to motivated people who may not always have the opportunity to attend a traditional classroom setting. The Coursera program saw enrollees such as single mothers, people in small villages, and even a father who was unable to leave his house for fear of contracting a disease that could potentially kill his child with an auto-immune disorder.

By opening the door to these people, the opportunity to achieve a better quality of life becomes available. Even more so, people can engage in lifelong learning and waves of innovation can be felt by providing the necessary education to people who have creative minds and spirits and can take their education and put it toward advancing society.

I have to agree with Daphne Koller. The immense amount of opportunities offered to people around the globe all through the power of the internet can truly enhance humanity and make the world as a whole, a better, more innovative place to live.


Kimberly Crossland is a writer, educator and business woman with a passion for bringing cultures together via the power of the internet. She works closely with companies of all sizes across the globe to help teach them how to harness technology to achieve more in their ventures. You can find her on Google+.

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