The emergence of the online video community gave birth to many trends, e-learning being one of them. You've probably at some point in life watched a tutorial on how to tie a tie (I know I alone probably contributed a few thousand views to those tie instructors on YouTube) or how to solve a quadratic equation. While both types of videos are definitely educational, the latter of the two sheds lights on a powerful impact of the video industry on the education sector.
At the turn of the century, an ambitious entrepreneur and an inspired philosopher embarked on arguably the most extensive journey for knowledge in the history of mankind. Unlike Google, however, which sent crawlers around the internet to document and catalog every article of every website, the duo called upon the collective brainpower of the world to help in their project. Jimmy Wales and and Larry Sanger would go on to found Wikipedia, the largest online encyclopedia ever compiled and perhaps the most valuable asset in every high school student's palette of resources. The crowdsourced effort was remarkable in magnitude, but it also ushered in an era of new possibility for education as a whole. Individuals started to notice the power of Wikipedia as a powerful tool for learning.
I believe that Wikipedia served as the inspiration for the e-learning revolution that we will soon experience full on. Before Wikipedia, few believed that education could truly be a self-guided process. The classroom ecosystem, which had been refined since the days of the Greeks, was ingrained into our comprehension of the learning process itself. However, Wikipedia taught us that we could not only learn but contribute by ourselves, free from the limitations of a physical classroom. Although backlash did occur, the model was tweaked and improved. And as a result of the emergence of this trend, there is a new paradigm: the very real possibility that traditional education may be supplanted by e-learning.
The value proposition for e-learning is its low cost of operation and relatively high level of accessibility. The concept becomes especially interesting when discussing students that lack the financial means to attend school or college but exhibit interest in pursuing an education or a degree. It's essentially a two-for-one: e-learning not only lowers barriers to entry (thus promoting education) but also empowers the learner to pick topics of interest and learn them at his or her own rate. In recent years, this concept has manifested itself in the form of large scale operations such as Salman Khan's www.khanacademy.com, a resource for videos on all subjects that has become a staple in classrooms around the nation. What's even more interesting is that private institutions are not only supporting free digital education resources but are at the forefront of developing and pushing out content to the public. Stanford University has offered many of its courses online through iTunesU to much success. In fact, both Salman Khan and Stanford President John Hennessy sat down to chat at last week's All Things D conference on the subject and gave their thoughts on education and the importance of e-learning.
So while it's apparent that education is moving in the direction of accepting and even promoting e-learning, the question arises on whether these models will be effective in addressing global education issues, especially in developing nations where technological infrastructure is not well established. In the States, we're fortunate that this type of infrastructure is quite commonplace; even children who are underprivileged or do not attend school have access to these tools through public resources such as libraries. This type of privilege, however, is not common to underprivileged children around the world. In several villages in India, there is one computer to every 100 square miles, a statistic that is probably inconceivable in the US. So although e-learning does empower the underprivileged in developed areas, how can we utilize these tools to reach and educate those who do not have access to technology? Several ambitious organizations have begun to tackle this problem by setting up infrastructure in specific geographies and providing e-curricula for children to learn.
An interesting counterargument to the notion that the deployment of technological resources in developing nations is impractical and ineffective is the nature of the growth of human knowledge and the costs realized in training teachers and putting up brick-and-mortar institutions. According to the Center for Education Technology, "it is estimated that human knowledge (as measured by scientific publications) doubles every eight to ten years." The cost to keep teachers themselves educated in a rapidly changing world itself is exorbitant, not to mention the cost to train and deploy them in schools in developing nations. To the second point, in developing countries, classes are frequently overpopulated, sometimes reaching numbers of 80-90 students per class. Students rarely have appropriate textbooks and supplies (our primary focus here at Jatalo) and student turnover rates (students dropping out and joining) often skyrocket immediately after the founding of schools in impoverished areas.
E-learning can directly solve these two issues by empowering individuals and providing convenience to the users of the technology. Operational and logistics costs are largely nonexistent in this model, and in case studies reported by various World Bank initiatives, student engagement and retention rates are double those of traditional schools. So obviously, the biggest problem to be solved is the deployment model: how do we create robust and easy-to-use technology infrastructures in developing nations at low cost? Because while Khan Academy and other services will continue to make leaps on the e-learning end, until we can address how to physically transport these platforms to the kids that need to use them, we're unable to deliver social impact to these areas of interest.
Is universal education possible through the rapid advancement of technology and digital learning? Maybe. But today, the reality is still that a traditional degree and proper education are necessities to attain a level of stability, and until something drastic happens, we at Jatalo are going to continue to do our best to help kids receive the books they need to attend school.
Do you think the digital age will render the brick-and-mortar classroom unnecessary? While you ponder that, here's a pretty infographic to look at