Online Education: The Future Is Now

June 01, 2011 | Applesauce
By Tim Thompson & Barry Bennett

Online Education: The Future Is Now

There was a day when discussion about distance education would have been fairly limited, fairly focused and – fairly short! But, that day is no longer! What used to be known as “distance education” has morphed in our technologically savvy, interconnected world into an entire realm of online schooling.

Online Education Defined

First, some basic understanding is needed. Distance education can be a very broad concept but, in its simplest form, is the idea of a learning environment in which the student is separated from the teacher. This has taken many forms over the years – correspondence classes, video-taped lectures, pre-packaged computer based classes (computer-based training, computer-aided learning, etc.), and today, online schooling / online education / e-learning – have been used somewhat interchangeably. The general idea of online schooling, though, has these basic components :
        •the separation of teachers and learners which distinguishes it from face-to-face
        •the influence of an educational organization which distinguishes it from self-study and
        private tutoring
        •the use of a computer network to present or distribute some educational content
        •the provision of two-way communication via a computer network so that students may         benefit from communication with each other and teachers
        •the inclusion of an interactive learning environment in which the learning content is
        available online and provides automatic feedback to the student's learning activities

A History of Online Learning

Distance education had its roots in the 1700’s as correspondence education. Technology-based distance education began, in a rudimentary fashion, in the early 1900’s with the introduction of some audio-visual devices into schools. The first computer-based learning system occurred in 1960 when scientists at the University of Illinois developed PLATO – Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. Though limited in scope and usefulness, PLATO cracked open the door to using the computer as an educational tool. The first stirrings of the internet in 1969 (by a division of the US Department of Defense) were significant in this history, but more significantly in 1988-89 the full-fledged World Wide Web was born when British engineer, Tim Berners-Lee, conceived a “web of notes with links.” From that point forward the digital age has swept across our lives in an unending wave of change. CalCampus introduced the idea of a complete online curriculum in 1994. NorthStar Academy, possibly the first online Christian school, began in 1998.

Today, with on-going advancements in software, hardware, and internet connection speed, online schooling is here to stay. The statistics are daunting :       
        •Online learning opportunities are available to students in 48 of the 50 states, plus         Washington, DC
        •K-12 online learning is growing at an estimated pace of 30% annually
        •In 2000, there were estimated to be 40,000 – 50,000 enrollments in K-12 online
        education; in 2009 there were an estimated total of 1.5 million students enrolled in
        online learning courses–a total 3000% increase in less than a decade.
        •In April 2006, Michigan became the first state to require online learning for high school         graduation. In 2008, Alabama added a high school graduation distance/online learning         requirement, as well
        •96% of traditional universities offer some kind of online coursework
        •In 2008 online enrollments for higher education grew by 12.9% far outpacing the 1.2%         growth of the overall post-secondary student population
        •3.94 million higher education students took at least one online class during the fall
        semester of 2007

Online learning is the fastest growing and fastest developing segment of the education pie. In fact, this whole arena is evolving and changing at a pace that is unprecedented. Many “brick-and-mortar” schools are incorporating some online classes as part of their regular, planned curricular offerings in what is often referred to as blended learning. Increasingly, some component of online learning is becoming a requirement for graduation, as well as an important consideration in the college application process.

Some misconceptions exist about online learning. While there may still be programs that consist mostly of reading on a computer screen or watching video-taped lectures, for most online courses there is a much higher degree of interconnectivity between teachers and students. Today, most online learning programs utilize a “learning management system” that includes interactive communication tools, instructional tools, video embedding, assessment features, etc. Other more traditional resources can be utilized as well, such as multi-media presentations and textbooks, either hardcopy or in a digital format.

The Impact of Online Education

But what about the teacher in this dizzying world of technology? The teacher is still vital in any successful learning environment. In fact, in an online learning environment the teacher is able to provide much more individualized, differentiated instruction. Students’ individual needs and questions can be addressed and progress can be quickly assessed. Technology is a tool – albeit a tool that has irrevocably altered our world – used to accomplish, essentially, the same goal that has always been a part of the process of education – the student learns more today than he/she knew yesterday.

Computer based education – online learning – is a tool that cannot be ignored. This technology has the capacity to enhance and expand educational opportunities and will be increasingly utilized as a tool to educate. The internet is a vital means of communication for most people today – especially teenagers. It has become an important element in the overall educational experience. A quick look at some statistics highlights this reality :
        •87% of all youth between the ages of 12 and 17 use the internet daily
        •86% of teens and 80% of parents believe that the internet helps teenagers to do better
        in school
        •85% of 17 year olds have used the internet to get information about a college or
Computer based learning is a technology that is here and is not going to go away. The day of  questioning whether this ought to be a part of the educational process has long past. While computer-based technology is not the panacea to cure all our educational woes, it is a reality that cannot be ignored. Our educational programs are either using these tools for the most positive and productive outcomes or we risk our programs being pushed to the sidelines with a limited impact on students’ lives in light of the world in which they exist. If our K-12 educational institutions say that they are preparing students for the next step to post-secondary education and are not incorporating some aspect of online learning in that process, could it be that we are failing to prepare students for the future that they will inevitably encounter?

Introducing NorthStar Academy

With an understanding of these educational realities, as well as having an eye to the future, Network of International Christian Schools purchased NorthStar Academy in 2008. NorthStar Academy, a regionally accredited Christian school, is a full-service school offering everything from admissions counseling to college application assistance. The NorthStar curriculum includes a broad selection of over 130 core, elective and Advanced Placement classes. NorthStar is strategically positioned to partner with parents, students, and schools in addressing educational needs in the constantly changing landscape of our mobile world.

What does the future hold regarding online learning? Are mobile learning systems (m-learning), virtual learning environments in which student avatars attend virtual classrooms, and speech synthesis learning systems really that far-fetched? Considering the fact that there was no internet a little over 20 years ago and personal computers were a personal extravagance for a select few, it does not seem likely. Christian teachers and Christian schools need to lead, not follow, in utilizing this tool in our efforts to provide an excellent, culturally relevant education, based upon a sound Christian philosophy, to students who sit in our classrooms preparing for a technological future that they, and we, can barely fathom.

Tim Thompson is the NICS Director of School Affairs. He holds a M.S. Degree in Educational Administration and has over 25 years of experience in school administration. Tim spent 17 of these years in the U.S. and 8 years in Moscow, Russia.

Barry Bennett is the Director of Northstar Academy and holds a B.S. Degree in Missiology/Church Planting and an M.A. in TEFL/Intercultural Studies. He has served with NICS for over 15 years and has held positions as both Principal and Director in Ghana, Indonesia, and Thailand.


Paulsen, Morten Flate, Online Education and Learning Management Systems: Global E-learning in a Scandinavian Perspectives, (April 18, 2011)

Evergreen Education Group, Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice 2010, (April 18, 2011); International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Fast Facts About Online Learning, (April 18, 2011) (April 18, 2011)


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