Hannah Dawson – Education at One’s Fingertips

The Internet has changed in the past two decades, and with it the traditional education model and the world of learning. Called by some the "democratization of higher education", the revolution of higher education has brought with it changes to the format, accessibility, and supports of learning models. Those who benefit most from these changes are those for whom the traditional model presented the greatest barriers—women, those living in remote or developing areas, those with learning disabilities, and others who have traditionally lacked access to higher education.

Massive open online courses (or MOOCs, as they are known for short) marked in some ways the début of Web 3.0 in education. First tried in Manitoba in 2008, and followed by a free MOOC offered by Stanford, these courses sought to augment the traditional learning experience through online interaction and participation. These early attempts lead to the development of platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and MITx, which offered a radically more flexible, accessible higher education experience. Students are now able to engage with the information on their own time, at their own pace, and from their own homes.

The connections that students make with other learners can transcend the brick-and-mortar classroom, extending to people around the world with similar learner profiles and course content. Even those in traditional classrooms have felt the evolution, both through the "mixed" delivery model whereby class content is delivered through a combination of traditional and online media, and through the dispensation of online support and a new channel for peer-to-peer support through user-generated content in forums and devoted platforms.

A learner is no longer limited to the instruction of his or her professor, but can readily find a multitude of resources in a variety of formats about a given topic. Finally, digital learning platforms have enriched the extent to which learning can be tailored to the needs of the individual learner; the development of algorithm-supported learning software that identifies and reports on students' weak spots has enhanced students' abilities to study efficiently and professors' abilities to adapt to the learners' needs.

In essence, the progress in online learning in the past number of years has improved learners' access; learning is more flexible, more customized, more available, and more networked than it was in the past. Virtually all learners stand to benefit from improved access to learning resources and to the learning environment, but those who benefit the most from these changes are those who faced the greatest barriers before. Groups who have lacked educational access in the past include those marginalized based on their gender or sex. In many cultures—including North America—there is a greater expectation that women will occupy themselves with household responsibilities such as childcare and homemaking. It should then come as no surprise that women make up a higher proportion of online degree programs than traditional in-class programs. Women stand greatly to benefit from resources that can be accessed off of campuses and outside of traditional hours.

Those in geographically remote areas similarly benefit from online resources, as do those in developing regions. The democratization of higher education means that more resources are available outside of traditional delivery channels and learners are better able to engage with each other and with outside resources. In developing countries with sufficient levels of Internet penetration, non-traditional online learning resources provide a valid alternative to in-class course delivery.

Furthermore, individuals with learning disabilities have an enhanced experience because of the move towards online learning platforms. Online learning platforms allow for greater variation in the pace and method of content delivery. They enable learners with disabilities to better leverage accessibility software. Finally, the greater connectivity has enhanced the accessibility of relevant software and tutoring methods, which may not have been accessible in the geographically constrained learning environment of yesteryear.

Finally, the online learning environment is often more accessible to those facing financial barriers as well. Online tutoring platforms and online content is generally offered at a lower cost than in-person learning. Further, for those working irregular shifts, online platforms enable on- demand learning on the individual's own schedule.

The future of online learning services is bright, both as standalone resources and as complements to traditional learning models. Educational institutions ranging from MIT to the local elementary school have embraced the increased connectivity. The penetration of online learning platforms and services will continue to grow. In developed markets, the horizon of mass personalized learning looms; in developing markets, the growth in internet penetration levels and the increased literacy rates of the population will cause demand for these types of services to rise steeply. Online learning may well level the playing field, and it's exciting to ponder what the outcomes will be for learners the world over.