The overlooked assumption of online education

By Richard Nieva , written on January 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Let’s get really highfalutin for a moment: The Internet is a great hub of ideas and learning – a democratizing and empowering force. But for all the possibilities of the Internet, there are still a lot of barriers, a reality that is especially apparent in online education.

I’ll explain: I had an unusually socially conscious day of reporting yesterday. First was the launch of a version of JobScout, held in the San Francisco Public Library. The service first teaches “digitally illiterate” people how to use the Internet, and then gives them the online tools they need to look for a job. Right after that was a dinner on education disruption put on by Andreessen Horowitz, hosted by the former mayor of Washington DC, Adrian Fenty, now a special advisor for that firm. While in office, Fenty was known for his ambitious plan for education reform and appointing Michelle Rhee, that city’s polarizing schools chancellor.

If by nothing else than a quirk of timing, mashed back to back, the two events revealed something about each other: the problems for education with online tools are just as big as they are offline. Obviously the set of challenges for both are very different, and dealing with education issues in the physical world is a road strewn with a lot more red tape.

On one end, you have a company like Udacity, whose chief executive Sebastian Thrun attended the dinner. The service offers free high school and college level courses to students online in courses from statistics and algebra to applied cryptography. In some cases, as in a newly announced partnership with San Jose State University, a student can get college credit for the course.

Thrun envisions a future where education is tailor-made for the individual, and a student can learn at his or her own pace. He quotes Salmon Khan, founder of Khan Academy, by pointing out that a student can re-watch a video lesson 40 times when she doesn’t understand a concept, but she won’t raise her hand 40 times. Osman Rashid, CEO of the e-textbook company Kno and also in attendance, agrees. He sees a system in the future where students are still grouped by age group, to keep the social element of schooling intact, but have entirely personalized curricula.

It’s all very intriguing, and a worthwhile undertaking to dream up the makeover of the classroom in the digital era. But amidst these high-minded ideas, there’s the underlying assumption that everyone knows how to use the Internet. Often, when the digital divide is debated, the argument is centered on access -- the haves and have-nots. Rashid believes the future of tablets in schools will be a “bring your own device” model, because budgets are too strapped to assign class sets. And for those who can’t afford a device of their own, government programs can step in.

But that doesn’t really touch on the aspect of digital literacy, though access surely plays a large role in that. Case in point, 62 million people in the United States are not online, and one in five Americans does not know how to use the Internet, according to a Pew study – which can mean anything from not understanding how to use email to not knowing how to consume news online.

JobScout was launched after its parent company, Trail, was approached by the California State Library and LinkAmerica, an organization focused on broadband deployment. “They wanted us to teach people how to use the Internet – on the Internet. It was either a horrible idea, or a really great one,” said CEO Christina Gagnier.

Target users are usually people from low-income backgrounds or seniors. They take five-minute lessons sprinkled with quizzes in the form of fill in the blanks, or games like word jumbles or mad libs. One sample fill in the blank: “______ get you from one webpage to another.” Answer: Links. Users then earn cheeky badges along the way, like the “Getting familiar with the common Internet” badge, or the “Show off” badge.

It’s a long way off from the learning going on at Udacity, happening on the same interconnected tubes. Both are very valuable, in very different ways. You might say the stakes are higher for a student on Udacity who is working toward a certificate of completion that can be recognized by academic institutions. But in a way, those cheeky JobScout badges, which have no recognized value other than in motivation, are more precious because they unlock the possibility to searching for a job online – not to mention finally being connected to a world where technology doing anything but slowing down.

It underscores a point Fenty made last night at the dinner: “Education is the only way of equalizing the playing field, and allowing for upward mobility,” he said. “Everything else is somewhat a Band-Aid.”

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