Emily Eng – The Opportunities Are Endless

The rapid technological advancements and growth of the digital world in the past few decades has drastically affected the way in which students interact and process information. Current students now quite literally have the scope of the world at their fingertips; this means free access to the world’s realm of databases, research studies conducted by experts in the field, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) on countless subject areas, opening opportunities that were essentially nonexistent for students in the past. Although online learning is not without drawbacks, its impact on students of all ages, nationality, and physical location worldwide is profound and has completely transformed the traditional education system.

The traditional educational model of learning is defined by the idea that students learn best by factual accumulation in the core subjects of math, science, reading, writing, and social science. For middle and high school students, this system is characterized with students sitting in uniform rows and an instructor in front of the room conveying information to the class. However, in 2001, Marc Prensky acknowledged the emergence of a new population of tech-savvy individuals who think in fundamentally and structurally different ways. These individuals are known as digital natives, individuals who grew up completely immersed in the digital environment and are therefore more proficient with its devices. He argued that although effective, the traditional education system has been rendered obsolete by the emergence of this new generation of digitally connected and easily distracted students. They seek an interactive and active education as opposed to the passive way in which they receive and regurgitate the content. They no longer have the attention capacity or patience for traditional methods of teaching. As such, online learning has grown in popularity for many students and presents a unique situation in which learning analytics and big data is applied in the educational environment.

Similar to the way in which large businesses such as Amazon, Google, and Netflix uses massive collection of data to better understand their consumers, online learning platforms enhance the ability of academia to understand its students. If used to its full potential, online learning can create an educational environment with more individualized learning. The technology allows instructors closer observation of student learning and interactions as well as real-time feedback and communication between the learners, instructors, and platform design team. By understanding how the students learn and struggles in grasping the content, teachers can essentially manipulate the curriculum and cater it to each student’s individual needs. Furthermore, in the much larger perspective, the massive collection and cross-referencing of data from multiple online learning platforms can provide endless opportunities for effective decision-making, understanding of human behavior, exploration of various learning and teaching styles, etc. This is essentially the beauty of big data. While many people view its rise as a mysterious and frightening phenomenon that threatens their privacy and safety, this mountainous accumulation of data allows researchers to scrutinize the relationships that exist in society.

Yet, this is not the only way in which online learning has affected the traditional educational model of learning. The opportunities offered by the growth of these digital platforms are not limited to individuals by age nor by physical location. Therefore, it brings the topic back to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that education can only thrive with personalized learning and providing opportunities for under-resourced populations. With online learning, individuals, whether they are current institution students or adults several years out of school, can play an active role in their education; they are no longer restricted by time, money, or the pressure to learn something completely irrelevant to them. They are able to choose a path of interest and pursue their passion with ease. In addition, there are individuals around the world who may not be able to afford or easily acquire an education. Online learning effectively reaches out to these underserved populations and provides the opportunities that were previously unattainable to them. In order to take advantage of this phenomenon, individuals only need access to the internet which are available in public areas such as the library. Therefore, online learning rests on the philosophy that everyone deserves an accessible education. Regardless of whether one is teenager struggling to provide for his family or a current middle school student or a college professor, there still remains a lot to be learned about the world.