October 28th, 2019
Modern technology has given us opportunities to educate the next generation in ways that could have been only imagined 60 years ago. If you grew up watching re-runs of The Jetsons where a three-hour work day was exhausting, the family robot did the housework, and telephone calls were conducted via real-time video conferencing, you know what I'm talking about.
As children of that era, we didn’t know much about the burdens of a long work day or the ethics of employing a robot as a household servant, but we were certainly charmed at the prospect of actually seeing the person we were talking to on the other end of the phone call.
Since the greatest technological advancement in my home at the time was an extra-long coiled cord that stretched from our olive-green rotary phone hanging on the kitchen wall to every other room in the house, many of the make-believe games we played as children consisted of Jetson-inspired communications technology. Yet, remarkably, as often as we pretended, the concept of futuristic education never crossed our minds. The only way we ever imagined school was a teacher standing at the chalkboard in the front of a classroom of desks lined in rows where we sat next to our peers and looked to the front of the room for our instruction.
The Jetsons first aired 60 years ago, on September 23, 1962, and was set 100 years in the future, in the year 2062. Seeing this generation is only 40 years removed from “the future” as our parents thought of it, it is remarkable to see how quickly such charming technology has actually developed. Though we’re not yet flying the skyways in hover cars, communications technology has made no small advancements.
Today, technology that allows us to talk with one another face to face virtually anywhere in the world in relatively-real time is carried in the pockets and purses of 257 million Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 96% of Americans own a smartphone equipped with face-to-face communications technology. As a matter of fact, such technology is so commonplace today, it’s hardly worth mentioning—except that in terms of education, it most certainly is.
When used thoughtfully and cautiously, modern communications technology is not only a luxury, but it is also a tool that can be leveraged to do our work better—and in the case of education, actually do better work.
The advancements in modern communications technology allow us to educate students live and in real time anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. And with the ubiquity of the internet in the 21st century, more than 80% of the developed world and nearly half of underdeveloped countries have access to online education. In other words, there has never been a time in the history of man where more people can be educated more conveniently than today.
In the 1980s, distance learning was becoming popular and was conducted primarily via snail mail. Though email was actually created in the 1970s, it wouldn’t become pervasive enough to advance distance learning until the late 90s. By the turn of the century, distance education was a growing phenomenon as educators could send large text files to their students (and vice versa) through email.
By 2012, distance education had morphed into “online education” as colleges and schools could easily share videos of recorded lectures and Google had introduced collaborative storage and writing tools like Google Drive and Google Docs. For the few who where comfortable negotiating the learning curve associated with online learning tools, quality online education was a reality.
In 2019, just seven years later, anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone—and an internet connection—can access video conferencing where instructors and students interact face to face and in real time. Teachers can see and talk to their students and students their teachers in a virtual classroom that creates the experience of sitting in the same room together.
Many products even provide teachers with exceptional teaching tools like screen sharing, whiteboards, and breakout classrooms. Teachers can share videos, draw diagrams, work problems, and allow students to debate or present assignments and essays to the entire class. Further, students can be divided into smaller classrooms for group work, recitations, or coaching. Today, the possibilities in an online learning environment are virtually endless.
Online education offers something traditional brick and mortar schools cannot. Online education brings students and teachers from around the world into the same classroom where they can meet and interact with others they may have never otherwise met. For instance, in my own experience, I’ve taught students living in Turkey, Africa, Equador, New Zealand, and Canada along with students from nearly every state in the U.S. Experiences like these are invaluable, but there are more benefits besides these.
Students can also eat their lunch at home. Because online learning brings the classroom to one's living room or kitchen table, students can earn a high school education (complete with a diploma) from the comfort and convenience of home. In many cases, this saves time for the whole family. Learning from home reduces time spent packing lunches, commuting, running forgotten books to school at the last minute, and other such inconvenient tasks.
Finally, studying online offers students an enormous amount of flexibility. In traditional classrooms, students are locked into a fairly rigid routine throughout the week. Homework has to be completed after school which creates tension between competing time demands like sports, family meals, household chores, and other important activities. In an online classroom, students possess a much higher degree of flexibility because they choose course times that fit their schedule and spend less time in the actual classroom.
In a typical case, online students attend their online classrooms approximately 6-10 hours per week, whereas in a traditional school, students often spend upwards to 30 hours per week in the classroom. In an online setting, students do have a few hours of fixed routine when they meet for live classes, but for the most part they choose when and where they complete their studies. This allows students and their parents the opportunity to create routines that fit their family’s schedule.
Of course, a few have objected to online education for similar reasons others in the past objected to automobiles when they became the norm; alongside the proliferation of real-time, face-to-face communications technology, admittedly, there has been a correlative rise in unanticipated social, physical, and spiritual challenges.
In other words, like all technological advancements, online learning not only offers new benefits, it also presents new challenges to our human experience, not the least of which are new forms of old temptations that need to be carefully guarded against. But thoughtful parents understand these are matters of the sinful human heart, not technology in se.
Others have been concerned that the internet might go down, a computer could crash, or some other malfunction in the infrastructure would prevent students from attending their live class. But this is little different from scenarios where weather, a broken down automobile, or a missed bus prevents the student from attending class.
Online schools could potentially--though unlikely--have a “tech day” in the same way a brick and mortar school might have a “snow day.” But in any event, online education also provides the added benefit of recorded classes. Students who miss a class for any reason can make it up by watching a recording of their class. Though it’s not ideal, it’s better than most alternatives brick and mortar schools can offer a student when they miss a class.
Like the automobile, communications technology that provides a powerful medium for the proliferation of classical liberal arts education is here to stay. It goes without saying, we are wise to be cautious; it should also go without saying, we are equally wise to leverage online learning for the good of human flourishing.
Not only does online education offer parents and students many convenient and beneficial ways to learn, if technology continues to develop as it has, it is plausible to think it may become a predominant means of educating students in the future. What better way than online learning to cultivate the life of the mind and instill wisdom and virtue in the souls of students who in 2062 may be employing AI to do household chores and driving hover cars on skyways.