How Online Education Helps Learning Better

You can learn more online, with private, big-name universities and trade schools on your side.

A century ago, the United States had one of the highest education attainment rates in the world. That American worker was better educated than the Americans of my father’s generation: in fact, some had bachelor’s degrees. But we started losing ground in the 1950s and 1960s. Now we’re failing and trending the other way, with less than 40 percent of American adults having a college degree.

There’s no obvious reason why it happened. Did Americans cease studying for college degrees? Perhaps. But if they did, that isn’t true anymore. Since the 1970s, educational access and innovation have become so intertwined that it’s hard to believe that even a 50-year history doesn’t change much. College access has improved in direct proportion to development in education technology.

What’s happening? The appetite for an education is not going away, and this hunger for education must be satisfied some way. But some people take this hunger for educational gain to its logical conclusion: they’re chasing every arcane detail of education instead of chasing the bigger goal. The spread of tech in higher education has become so important to reducing access, cost, and inconsistency that it has reached a point where it threatens to bring the entire enterprise to a halt.

As we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., tech is shutting down or paralyzing public services. But that, too, is an incredibly small price to pay to win efficiency. The internet is shaping the design of higher education.

As an education provider and an advocate for successful education, I find the spread of tech both something to applaud and something to be terrified about. What follows is my personal story of both fan and cause of these changes, and how I’ve been changing as a consequence.

A century ago, schools were a pretty good joke, expensive, spread out over a dozen square miles of soil, and mostly attended by the local rich and often preyed upon by bullies or badly bred aliens from outer space. But then the public schools worked, and as a result, the country had the smartest workforce in the world.

I like to think about education as an evolving organism, the same way nature is changing and evolving. There are some truly brilliant people working in universities all around the world, and they are critical to educational progress. The evolution I’m talking about in this column is designed to support these brilliant minds, to raise their academic profiles and make the profession that much better.

The goal is to make higher education more able to react quickly to faster, more complex technology and to spur innovation in the creation of smart forms of education. This is a very big, very diverse project, and it involves a lot of moving parts, both human and tech. Technological change in higher education is very different from the changes that happened in Washington or Silicon Valley. It is more evolutionary than revolutionary, a lot less about the “cure” than the symptoms of this century’s higher education.

But everyone involved in higher education, from publishers to researchers to teachers to admissions professionals to corporate sponsors, has an interest in seeing better things happen. We all want educated people, to show up for work and have their families paid for. Most of all, we want talented people, people who are thinking about new ways of doing things and building great things.

These are valuable things. For us as consumers of education, they’re exciting. Technology is on our side, and let’s hope we can figure out the best way to use it to increase opportunity for people and to provide better education to them.

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