The Future of Education: How Online Learning is Changing Education
The history of education is a long one – but not an especially varied one. For centuries, the epicentre of secondary school education was the physical classroom, a purpose-built space for synchronistic, tightly scheduled learning.
Then along came online schools, which are fundamentally transforming how we understand education. In this post, let’s take a walk through the unlikely history of online learning, and track how the model is elevating education today. Finally, let’s dip our toes into some speculative waters, pulling from recent research to guess how education will continue to change in the future.
Here’s a (slightly abridged) version of online learning’s impact on the education system – and the exciting path ahead.
The History of Online Learning
To understand the future, you have to investigate the past.
The history of online learning goes back further than most people expect. As students in OES’s history courses understand, history is a continuum of overlapping causes and effects – big changes don’t appear out of thin air. In that vein, the history of online learning stretches back to the mid-1800s when the US Posta Service offered remote “correspondence colleges,” and enterprising institutions dabbled with the idea of televised and radio-transmitted college classes. Each of these prototypes was instrumental in developing what we now know today as “online education.”
Then came the rise of the personal computer. There’s some debate over the first institution to implement online courses in earnest. Some resources point all the way back to the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in 1982, which leveraged fledgling computer conferencing software to offer business development resources to executives. Others maintain that Florida’s Nova Southeastern University was the first to get the ball rolling, offering accredited graduate courses in a “digital classroom.” And yet others stick the flag in the University of Phoenix, 1989, the first school to fully offer bachelors and graduate online degrees.
You’ll notice that high schools are conspicuously absent from the story so far. Universities and colleges had a couple of legs up in digital adoption: first, they often had computer resources, digital infrastructures and tech-fluent professors that high schools simply didn’t at the time; second, they had a geographically diverse student body to accommodate (unlike high schools, which usually serviced the surrounding community). It wasn’t until the mid-90s – when Whitmore School in West Virginia piloted their “CompuHigh” school – that online high schools entered the conversation.
The rest is (recent) history. As more high school students warmed to the idea of online courses, funding and accreditation mechanisms grew more sophisticated. And as technology advanced, so too did the schools themselves. Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, which acted as a sort of “proof of concept” for many students who got their first taste of online learning. (You can read more about Ontario’s online learning requirement released amid the pandemic in 2022).
How Online Learning Is Changing Education
Why did a humble spin on the conventional schooling model cause such a massive sea change in education? How did the inherent qualities of online learning (and, by extension, online teaching) respond to and morph alongside emerging pedagogical theories? In simpler terms: how is online learning changing education?
That’s the central question we tackle today. Now that you know a little about the history of online schools, let’s investigate the seismic impacts of a remote, digital education model.
Self-Paced, Self-Directed Learning
Because online learning is conducted remotely via digital tools and communication, online teachers do not have the same “classroom management” constraints as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They do not have to set a single, synchronous classroom pace.
Early on in the history of online schools, practitioners realized the potential in this unique setup. It was a liberating model for teachers, who could focus more attention on learning outcomes and course guidance – and less on shushing kids who slowed down the pace with their conversations.
But more than that, it was a liberating model for students. No two students learn at exactly the same pace; yet, for hundreds of years, the conventional classroom paradigm asked students to do exactly that. Online learning upended that paradigm by championing self-directed, self paced learning.
A student in our Ontario online courses can move as fast or slow as they need. If they struggle to absorb or comprehend a concept, they spend a little more time learning it. Similarly, if they sail through a unit with ease, they can move on to the next without waiting for other students to catch up.
This individualized approach to learning can happen within a course – or in the larger context of a student’s high school career. For instance, if a student with a knack for English finishes their ENG3U course in a few months, they can move beyond the traditional “grade silo” to take ENG4U, thereby advancing according to their individual potential.
Accessibility and Accommodation
To give traditional brick-and-mortar schools credit, they have made leaps and bounds in the past two decades regarding accessibility and student wellbeing. But barriers prevail in conventional classrooms – barriers that online schools attempt to remove. In this section, let’s explore online learning and accessibility through three different lenses: physical accommodations, family accommodations and mental health accommodations.
An important way that online learning is changing education is through “democratization.” Because students can experience an accessible online school from their primary residence or place of care, they do not face the same physical barriers to entry. This means that every student with access to an internet connection can conveniently attend accredited courses.
This democratization also extends to diverse family situations. For instance, consider a family that moves a lot (perhaps the primary earner has a job featuring frequent relocation). Rather than shuffle their young learner from new classroom to new classroom, the family can provide a stable, consistent educational experience with an online school.
Mental Health Accommodations
Finally, the accessibility of remote, self-directed learning means that students may prioritize their mental health as needed. Remember, online courses are self-paced. If a student needs to forgo their studies for a week or more to deal with pressing personal issues, they can. And they won’t face getting left behind because of it. This ensures that every student – regardless of their psychological, emotional and social landscapes – gets the same educational opportunity. For a resource on how to balance your online studies and mental health, visit the link to our blog post.
The Role of Teachers
Recently, Google released comprehensive research they conducted into the future of education. In it, they note a shift in teacher roles from “gatekeepers of knowledge” to “choreographers of learning.”
We like the ring of that! It recalls the seminal research of Alison King, a professor of education at California State, who argued that a teacher shouldn’t be a “sage on a stage” – they should be a “guide on the side.” King’s reasoning was that students should not be passive recipients of knowledge; if students are to meet 21st Century demands head-on, they will need the critical thinking skills you can only get from a self-directed, active education.
The teachers at OES exemplify the best of this “choreographer of learning” concept. They are knowledgeable, compassionate and attuned to their students’ individual needs. And, when they need to be, they are “guides on the side,” enabling their students to reach their highest potential.
Potential and Personalized Learning Experiences
Brick-and-mortar schools have always been circumscribed by physical, logistical and budgetary limitations. To start, a classroom teacher simply can’t accommodate every learning style by bringing different media to class for each unit, chapter or lesson. For instance, if they’re teaching Vimy Ridge in history, they might settle on written accounts. If they’re teaching polynomials, they might favour an oral explanation, etc. At the same time, students who struggle to learn in these modes can’t readily access new materials or additional support. Everyone has to make do with the limitations as best they can.
Online schools were built to rise above limitations. With online learning, students can choose materials according to the learning mode that suits them best (auditory, writing/reading, visual, kinesthetic), further personalizing their academic experience. If a student struggles with the material in an OES course, they can access 24/7 tutoring services. And if a student is dissatisfied with their academic performance in a course, or if they believe their grade doesn’t reflect their true potential, they can enroll in course upgrading.
Again, it’s all about ensuring that each student has the tools and resources at their disposal to achieve their highest potential. We strongly believe that the future of education will be student-centric. It will be about treating each learner as a unique and active participant in education – to maximize individual potential.
Schools “Built” for the World Ahead
We’ve discussed how online schools incorporate and facilitate cutting-edge practices like self-paced learning, learning styles, educational democratization, etc. But you can also view online learning in the context of a widespread push toward digital adoption and innovation.
Harvard Business Review, tackling the topic of post-secondary online education, put it this way:
This moment is likely to be remembered as a critical turning point between the “time before,” when analog on-campus degree-focused learning was the default, to the “time after,” when digital, online, career-focused learning became the fulcrum of competition between institutions.
The same is mostly true for online high schools. In the mid-1900s, it made perfect sense for a student to practice free-hand writing exercises at their wooden desk. The white-collar jobs of the day looked a lot like that – manually scribing, tallying and processing information with a pad and pen. School, as it’s always been, was partly a process of preparing students for the real world, jobs included.
The real world of today looks a lot different. Most jobs are online. People foster relationships online, apply for mortgages online, order groceries and stay up-to-date with current events online. Therefore, they need an educational model that prepares them for that real world – an education that highlights digital communication, online administration and critical thinking within a digital framework.
The Next Decade and Beyond: Looking Ahead to the Future of Education
We don’t have a crystal ball here at OES. What we do have, however, is mounting research on the direction of high school education.
In theory, we can extrapolate about the future from what we know right now. Those tenets of compassionate, asynchronous, individualized and accessible education will persist in the future – that’s all but certain. We’ve seen first-hand the value of treating students as individuals rather than a collective. The future will likely double down on that value.
Beyond educational philosophy, we will also see a doubling down on technology in the classroom (digital or physical). Emerging technologies like big data analysis, AI/ML and immersive tech have become too relevant to ignore. For instance, researchers believe that teachers of the future will leverage big data to create individualized curricula and “access student’s academic performance (and) learning patterns (to) provide instant feedback.”
Meanwhile, other researchers maintain that immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality will “help learners grasp abstract concepts and gain hands-on experience in low-risk virtual settings.” It might sound like something ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel, but there’s a distinct possibility that wearable immersive tech will become a commonplace fixture in students’ at-home learning experience.
Finally, many believe (ourselves included) that the future of education will be increasingly online. There are so many compelling benefits of online education – a few of which we’ve mentioned above – that will only become more apparent and mainstream with time. Online education is not, and probably will never be, for everyone. But we predict that the future of education will see more students making informed choices about their options for traditional vs. online schools.
For more information on how our accredited online high school works, visit our website. To book a guidance appointment, visit the “Contact Us” tab on our website. We look forward to hearing from you sometime… in the future.