How Do I Know If Online Learning Is Right For Me

Willie Perkinson, a CUNY professor, teaches both online and face-to-face classes. Here’s how you can make an informed decision.

For years, people have been learning to be new writers by simply writing a lot, thinking deeply about what matters, exploring their interests, working with the only creative tool at their disposal—writing. There’s even a popularity contest in which anyone can submit an article or question to thousands of elite writers in the quest to determine the winner.

This DIY approach to education (and writing, for that matter) implies that a skill can be learned when necessary. And this sentiment, expressed throughout popular culture, has opened the door to online education—or more specifically, “education” on demand.

Our biggest problem is that online education—like everything else online—wants to turn us into self-taught automatons with few personal skills, and little interest in personal connection. It’s for the purpose of maximizing our labor costs, so we as a species can keep growing. But this instant culture of efficiency kills connectivity—the ability to connect in real time to others, as a community, for support and to promote each other’s interest.

Like any new method, online education is inherently flawed. And it may sound all too familiar to online educators and learners: “So many people have wanted to learn Chinese, we’re having trouble filling seats.”

It is for this reason that research now suggests that online learning is wildly underutilized—despite the fact that it remains the most cost-effective way to teach reading, writing, and math. A study conducted by Psychology Today and at Rutgers University found that the impact of online classes could be measured by everything from the percentage of teaching assistants who leave in distress to the number of students who actually make some progress. The most striking finding: that out of 500 students taking a language class at a website for foreign language education in China, only 32 actually advanced beyond basic English. None of the others earned scores in the ELA or social studies section of the class.

This, of course, is a function of the online education industry’s long-term greed, but some progress has been made. At the end of October, LearnZillion, a company that provides legal online classes, announced it will offer one of the first academic online classes to make it count for credit at a U.S. university. You guessed it: English, they say.

To be sure, there’s no guarantee that this new class will become popular, but its success reflects the more powerful wish of all to learn—to gain a better job, move up the career ladder, and stay informed in the process. Whether we can do that with online education is another question altogether.

There are already much better ways to learn. At Brown University, where I’m a professor, we’ve been offering time-limited classes through our online platform, BrownWitness, for over four years. Although this approach has been successful, there are others I’d recommend. Seek out third-party, for-profit educational businesses that offer new in-class experiences, such as the coding bootcamp GetSmarter, or the thought-expanding Thinking Class, taught by MIT professors. Among the best colleges to engage with online education are the institutions that aren’t in the business at all. Foster the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that creativity requires, as true disciples do.

Not everyone can progress through the doors of a university and then use content as a locomotive to work on their skills. Enroll in a coding bootcamp, a short course in puzzle solving, a personal expression project, or a novel, or even a variety of yoga classes. These are creative modes of work with tangible results that can make your life better.

But whatever you do, whatever form you choose to pursue, remember one thing: what you learn isn’t for everyone. The online economy wants to be a place where everyone has everything they need—transforming self-taught writers into total automatons, teachers into faceless experts, and nothing but consumption to power all its solutions.

But here’s the sad reality: you and everyone around you didn’t create the world around you, people didn’t choose to be human, and there’s no one perfect path to mastery. Learning by doing should be part of every child’s life, and that includes the one where we see our money go to. Together we must be brave and learn together, if we want to build a better future.

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