Fulfilling the “Promise” of Online Courses

For the last few years journalist have reported the growing popularity of online courses. But the growth seems to have stopped. According to Kay Steiger

Though the number of adults entering into higher education as non-traditional students continues to increase, the percentage interested in taking all or most classes online has roughly stayed stagnant. The survey found 38 percent were interested in taking all or most of their classes online compared with 37 percent in 2006.

Why is this? Well, this isn’t like the iPhone. The fact that online education is new technology (hell, it’s not even that anymore) isn’t enough to make it more popular. While it’s true that technology has advanced greatly in the last 5 years or so, the actual quality of online courses has stayed pretty much the same.

As Matt Yglesias writes at Slate:

Actual human beings need to come up with ideas, persuade other human beings of the merits of those ideas, try them out, learn from mistakes, tweak, and iterate. The basic logic of online education seems clear, but even though the technological sideshows—broadband speeds, smartphone penetration—has advanced a lot over the past five years, I’m not sure anyone’s really devised fantastic courses yet. So what looked promising five years ago still looks, well, “promising” rather than like something that’s arrived.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The 38 percent of older adults taking college courses (the demographic to which online courses are most likely to appeal) can continue to take online courses. And the other 60 percent or so can take regular classes.

But in order for online courses to get really popular something real would have to change here. They’d have to be awesome; they can’t be merely “innovative” and “promising.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer