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The Short History of Online Courses

[fa icon="clock-o"] Jun 3, 2015 8:30:00 AM [fa icon="user"] Jared Oates [fa icon="folder-open'] Course Creation

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This might be appropriately called “A Personal History of Online Learning” since it traces my own engagement with education online. I think my own anecdotes trace enough of the broader trends in the space, though, to warrant the title above. This post traces 5 successive phases in the evolution of online learning.

Early Efforts: A Textbook Online

My first experience with an online course was a business basics class offered for credit through the Continuing Education department of my alma mater. It consisted of long pages of minimally formatted text from a textbook and a long series of busywork assignments to be submitted online. It was as if the course creators wanted to be sure that it took a long time since learners weren’t actually spending time in class. The effect was tedious and miles removed from any actual learning outcomes. I'll be honest with you, I never finished it.

Next Steps: Reproducing Classrooms Online

The most notable early success stories with online learning were aimed at expanding the reach of education. George Siemens and Stephen Downes coined the acronym MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) in 2008. They used traditional classroom techniques like lecture presentations, handouts, discussions, and exams, but they used online technologies to scale from dozens of students to tens of thousands. 

Lectures were recorded as videos, wikis and chat rooms facilitated discussions, handouts became downloadable documents, and so on. In time, big name universities like MIT and Harvard began to produce them. In 2012, an umbrella group called edX was formed to provide a platform for these university-created MOOCs. It now offers hundreds of courses and has more than 60 participating universities.  

Self Awareness: Leveraging Online Advantages

In addition to expanding the reach of education, a number of players in the space saw the opportunity to leverage online technology to improve the quality and efficiency of learning outcomes. In 2011, for example, I saw this first hand while doing some consulting work for Western Governor’s University. WGU is a 100% online school that’s built on some core ideas for technology enhanced education.

  • Their programs are self-paced, meaning that learners move through the program as quickly or as slowly as they choose. Self pacing satisfies both of two kinds of students--those who are bored by the class pace and those who simply need more time.
  • WGU classes are competency-based, meaning students can complete a course as soon as they can demonstrate mastery of the course material. Technology mediated assessment is key to making this practical.
  • Without a physical campus, tenured faculty, and research facilities, the WGU model introduces dramatic cost efficiencies. These efficiencies allow WGU to operate comfortably without any need for government subsidies.
  • Technology-mediated human interaction allows WGU degree programs to incorporate both live and asynchronous mentoring. This time efficiency is indispensable for students that are blending education into a working adult life.  

Turning Tides: Reshaping the Classroom in the Likeness of Online

The advantages of online education models are too stark to ignore, and traditional classrooms have begun to adapt. Kahn Academy, for example, is a collection of more than 5000 online courses geared towards a young audience with an emphasis on math. 

Early usage of Kahn Academy was by parents like me looking for a way to help their kids who were struggling with math. A number of traditional elementary schools, however, have begun to use Kahn Academy courses to provide essential instruction, thus freeing up class time to focus on individual mentoring and tutoring. A number of traditional high schools and colleges are using edX MOOCs in the same way. This phenomena is what is called a “flipped” classroom model.

Kahn Academy also highlights another potential advantage of online learning. Many Kahn Academy math lessons are now accompanied by exercises that allow the student to demonstrate mastery. The exercises are presented in sequence so that the system can identify where the learner may have gaps in their understanding. The system then adapts the exercises to provide more practice where it’s needed. This use of technology to personalize instruction is often referred to with a term borrowed from industry: mass customization. 

Emerging Directions: Nichification / Commercialization

In mid 2015, at the time of this writing, I see two linked emerging trends--nichification and commercialization. Nichification is the proliferation of highly specialized online courses serving very specific audiences. Unlike the university general education offerings that are intended to serve hundreds of thousands of potential learners, these courses target total audiences of a few hundred to a few thousand. Nichification is linked to commercialization because these tightly focused niche courses are usually created by highly specialized experts that run them as a small business venture. A couple of examples to illustrate: 

  • A getting started course for people that want to do online interview webcasts.
  • A series of lessons on how to perform specific accounting transactions in Wave, a free online accounting platform for small businesses.

Collectively, these thousands of small business are becoming a very big business. Scores of software platforms are emerging to support the entrepreneurial creators of niche online courses, Udemy and Pluralsight are two notable examples in this space that have recently attracted a lot of attention.

Niche Academy is one of those platforms. While the focus of each of these platforms is unique, the transformative potential for education overall is genuinely exciting to me. I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring.


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Jared Oates

Written by Jared Oates

Jared comes to Niche Academy with a love for teaching and learning. He's a self-taught software engineer and graduated from college with two teaching-emphasis degrees. He finds endless fascination in the ways that new technology changes lives and reshapes the world around him.

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