Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Sep 15, 2011

Online education gains ground in USDistance and online education isn’t a novel idea in the United States. In fact, some may be surprised to discover e-learning began as early as the 1960s. Since then schools, universities, academies, and nonprofit organizations have taken to the Internet to disseminate and teach knowledge to people around the world. While this type of education must often still be purchased, some public schools and universities are expanding their online offerings.

Take Stanford University for example, which plans on offering three free introductory online courses this fall on weighty topics like artificial intelligence, databases, and machine learning. The online classes won’t consist of a boring lecture, but rather they will contain interactive multimedia presentations broken up into digestible 15-minute chunks.

Cambridge University’s Lynne Harrison likes the idea, telling The Independent: “A good lecturer will change the tempo after 15 minutes, and the Internet allows that to happen more naturally. The technology that Stanford has put in place makes lectures more watchable, and we’re looking at doing a similar thing for our free online courses launching next spring.”

Stanford isn’t the first U.S. university to offer free online material, however. Open Yale Courses has been offered by Yale University since December 2007, spanning 20 different departments. MIT recently celebrated ten years of offering its OpenCourseWare, which covers a broad range of departments and topics.

However, online schooling (free or not) has had its fair share of challenges in the U.S., ranging from the stigma placed on it to the relatively slow placement of necessary Internet infrastructure. Two stories from earlier this week highlight the problems rural and remote areas of the country are dealing with in expanding online education.

The Houston Chronicle posted a story on Sunday about Alaska’s Learning Network and the challenges the school consortium faces in providing students in remote areas with online classes. The network includes about 140 students spread across 20 different schools in two school districts, all receiving vital online courses. Many of those courses are required to qualify for the heavily-pushed Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS), which provides an important source of funds to high school students intending to go to university.

Federal Recovery Act money has gone towards establishing the network, also covering the cost of helping school districts add classes required for the APS. Yet funding concerns continue to threaten the program, which is currently running on a one-year startup grant. Ensuring those in even the more remote parts of Alaska can access the network is another vital issue, as many portions of rural Alaska still grapple with reliable Internet connectivity.

Another part of the U.S. struggling with high-speed Internet access — necessary for streaming multimedia and digital downloads associated with most online courses — is Idaho. In a New York Times story published on Tuesday, a somewhat bleak picture of Idaho’s rural Internet speeds was painted.

“Without broadband, especially in rural areas, kids might not reach their full potential,” Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the fed’s Rural Utilities Service, told the Times. “And we can’t expect to be competitive in a global economy.”

Rural Utilities Service is apparently one of many entities involved in a $25 million project to establish high-speed broadband to rural Idaho. But simply adding more broadband service may not be enough. The cost of broadband service is often prohibitive to rural citizens, making it more difficult to access online education. The Idaho Education Network attempts to offset this problem by offering high-speed Internet to all the state’s public schools, also allowing businesses and residents to access that service at the schools. Yet cuts in education funding have forced the program to cut back this service at some schools.

While many questions loom concerning online education (who pays for unprofitable broadband infrastructure to rural areas? what are the consequences of removing the social experience?) there is no doubt that it’s increasing in popularity and necessity. With the current U.S. education crisis being hotly debated, it’s not difficult to imagine that popularity and necessity growing even further. And so will the growing pains, especially for rural America.

Photo via D’Arcy Norman, Flickr Creative Commons