Children born since the dawn of the Internet Age probably wouldn't think twice about learning online. They might just as soon read a Shakespeare sonnet on Twitter as hear it live from a teacher in a classroom.
And yet the educational establishment still debates whether e-learning (aka "virtual schooling" or "distance education") can be as good as traditional in-person teaching in a campus setting. Jokes are still being made about successful e-schools, such as the University of Phoenix, as being "diploma mills."
Now the results of a recent federal study should help "log out" of that tired debate. The study, released by the US Department of Education, found that many types of online education for a college degree are better at raising student achievement than face-to-face teaching is.
That's quite a seal of approval.
The big advantage in digital learning is the "time on task," or flexibility for a student to absorb the content of a subject. Once students are given "control of their interactions," they can set their own pace. They often study longer or visualize a problem differently. Professors are also forced to design better instructional techniques by the very nature of the technology.
The most effective learning occurs when a school combines e-learning with classroom teaching. Yet for many students, such as stay-at-home parents or those with day jobs or those with low income, online learning is all they can afford in time or money.
The Education Department is making plans to create free, online courses for the nation's 1,200 community colleges – which teach nearly half of undergrads – to make it easier for students to learn basic skills for jobs. The courses would be offered as part of a "national skills college" managed by the department.
The rapid rise of e-learning may finally help burst the bubble in rising tuition costs, which now average more than $25,000 a year for a degree from a private bricks-and-mortar institution.
Someday the best college teachers in the country won't need to be confined to one institution but will find their lectures and course materials spread to millions of students at low cost via the Internet. That would be a huge, historic leap in productivity for the education industry.
The US needs more competitive workers with advanced degrees, a goal set by President Obama. In the past decade, the number of university students worldwide is up by nearly half to 153 million. Any country that makes learning more accessible and less expensive through cutting-edge cybertechnology – say, by putting textbooks on devices such as the Kindle – will have a leg up in the global knowledge economy.