Online Education: The Wave of the Future?

 
by Bruce Etter
 
     
 

We often hear that because something is the “wave of the future” we should jump on board and go with it. This new thing must be good if it is the wave of the future. Certainly this phrase is being used regarding online education, but it behooves us
to examine the nature of this “wave,” for there is no shortage of proponents and critics when it comes to using the Internet for educational purposes. 

The face of education is changing rapidly due in large part to the Internet. A student can now obtain a portion of or an entire college degree over the Internet. It is estimated that more than 1 million K–12 students are taking courses online, nearly a 50% increase from only two years ago. This number is expected to increase significantly in the upcoming years. The time will soon come when the student who completes his education without taking any courses online will be a rare exception. Let us consider some of the philosophical and practical issues involved. 

No one would argue with the benefits of having live, face-to-face interaction in the educational process. But is all face-to-face instruction better than all non-face-to-face instruction? Which is to be preferred, mediocre or average instruction face-to-face or expert instruction online? This is not to suggest that all online instruction is expert or that all traditional education is mediocre, but it is an important question. The question does force one to deal with the issue of whether or not we believe that one method is superior to the other . . . in all cases. I would much prefer to be taught online by an expert on any given topic as opposed to being taught face-to-face by someone who is an average or poor teacher. 

The argument has been made, however, that education must take place within the context of community and this community can only exist in the form of a brick and mortar school. Community is certainly a vital aspect of Christian fellowship, but the question arises as to whether the school is truly the center of community life. For the Christian, is the school truly the primary hub of community?  The school can be a community, but is it the community?  The church, of course, is the center of community life for the believer. Fellowship revolves around interaction with brothers and sisters of the church family. Otherwise, where   does that leave the home school crowd, the elderly, singles, and couples without children? If the brick and mortar school is the hub of community and fellowship these folks are obviously left out. 

Furthermore, this argument assumes there is no community aspect to online education. Certainly, the community of an online school is not the same as that of a traditional school. This does not mean that there is no community. I have seen friendships develop and grow in this environment.  I have observed interaction among students, parents, and teachers that has been mutually edifying.  But don’t misunderstand. The “virtual world” should not replace the real world. My point here is that it is wrong to assume that there is no community aspect among students who are a part of an online school. 

I have observed two distinct beneficiaries of online education. First, families who are committed to educating their children at home have the option of getting some help in the areas in which they see themselves as less qualified. I have spoken with countless families who are committed to classical Christian education and live in areas where it is impossible to find a good Latin teacher, or find any Latin teacher, to help in this vital aspect of their child’s education. They can certainly learn Latin and teach it to their children, and many do a fine job of it. This becomes increasingly difficult, however, with multiple children and many responsibilities to juggle.  These families have the option of keeping their children at home and offering them instruction by an expert in the field. The same is true of other subjects (Omnibus, Biology, Calculus, etc.) depending upon the area in which the parent may have weaknesses.  No one is an expert in everything! 

Other families see the benefits of spending more one-on-one time with their children in the earlier years (teaching them to read, etc.) and taking advantage of the online courses for fourth grade and up or seventh grade and up. The online option allows those who are philosophically committed to having more direct oversight over their children’s education to maintain that relationship and at the same time receive quality assistance. 

The second beneficiary of online education is the small Christian school. I have been involved with several small Christian schools over the years, and I know that limited budgets can mean that a teacher wears many hats. I have been everything from a girl’s volleyball coach to a missions coordinator, and I have taught a broad range of subjects, including Math, Bible, Spanish, and Rhetoric. The list goes on and on. The truth is, I was not truly qualified to serve in some of these roles. Small schools do what they have to do. A small Christian school may not have the budget for a Calculus or Omnibus teacher. These schools now have the option of maintaining their normal schedule and  joining in an online class with a qualified instructor at a fixed time in the day. That seems like a great solution to me. 

So, is online education the “wave of the future?” It is likely that this is indeed the case. Like most “new” things in the past, it will likely meet with skepticism.  Just as traditional education can be excellent or quite poor, online education can be the same. However, understood in the right philosophical context and applied in appropriate settings, online education will continue to be what many families have told me it is: a tremendous blessing.