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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Will E-Learning Platforms Ever Replace Schools and Universities?

For centuries, education has revolved around the in-person, teacher-centered delivery of instruction to classes of students, with schools stressing the basic educational practice of maths, reading, science and social studies and with universities offering a broader, more subject-specific selection of courses. The very premise of traditional education is face-to-face communication, student interaction with instructors and opportunities for spur-of-the-moment questions and demonstrations to enable students to understand a concept. 

But today this model has shifted, with artificial intelligence, automation and the rapid development of internet technologies bringing new forms of learning to students around the world through the advent of online courses offered for free or at low cost. Coursera, for example, is a cheap digital learning platform that offers distance education to those who otherwise wouldn’t have attended a traditional university or higher learning centre, but there are also far simpler and more accessible platforms designed to educate: YouTube being one of them. The proliferation of educational content being churned out on a daily basis on the popular video platform almost rivals that of paid learning platforms. Then you have Udemy, Ruzuku, Thinkific, Coursecraft… The list of e-learning platforms available today is seemingly endless. All that is required for a student to learn online is a stable internet connection, meaning for the first time ever students are virtually able to learn whenever and wherever they wish: on the road while travelling, from their bed, at their local café… E-learning has made learning fun, accessible and engaging once again, particularly for those students who struggle in traditional learning environments. 

New technologies are also enabling traditional universities and schools to create their own educational content for delivery to students, through user-friendly authoring software that allows users to structure and sequence instructional content and media. As a result, traditional campuses and even Ivy League schools are complimenting their courses by offering courses and in some cases even degrees that can be completed online.

So, the question on everyone’s lips is – will the continued growth of e-learning lead to the demise of the traditional campus or school?  Many argue that online courses will never replace the traditional university campus experience, while others believe that unless universities start innovating – and fast – they will soon we displaced by digital learning platforms. 

In my opinion, the e-learning environment will indeed lead to the demise of the university campus, but it will never replace primary and secondary schools. Why is this? It’s simple really. Schools, while largely designed to offer academic instruction, are almost more important for a child’s social development – and these social skills cannot be gained digitally. The primary purpose of universities and higher education providers on the other hand is to equip students with the knowledge required to specialize in a field or become employable. Yes, the social experience university offers is valuable and the contacts one can gain at university can be even more valuable for a student’s career, but many would dismiss these as luxuries only a privileged few can afford.

The point is, universities just aren’t innovating quickly enough, and certainly not as quickly as their online competitors. Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, says America’s most prestigious universities – namely Harvard, Yale and Princeton – don’t appear to have changed or innovated since 1975. The buildings and facilities look mostly the same, the academic calendar or course offerings haven’t changed much, and the number of teaching staff hasn’t grown. At the same time, tuition fees have risen, acceptance into universities has become increasingly difficult and students are finding job prospects upon graduation slimmer than ever – no longer is a simple university degree enough, it seems. Employers are seeking to pluck graduates with Master’s degrees, PHDs and multiple languages and skills under their belt from the increasingly shrinking labor market. 

E-learning platforms in comparison are often cheaper, more accessible, more convenient and even better for the environment. It was found that by eliminating the need to travel to a physical campus and by removing the need for a physical campus at all, online courses consume roughly 90 percent less energy and 85 percent fewer CO2 emissions per student than if they were to attend a traditional campus.

If we’re lucky, perhaps the growth of digital learning won’t necessarily lead to the demise of the traditional campus, but will contribute to its improvement. Tech-savvy alternative schools and digital learning platforms are challenging traditional colleges and campuses to make changes in the classroom – making them more compatible with new technologies, more efficient as learning environments, and helping reduce teacher workloads. With any hope, teachers and schools will take advantage of new digital technologies to help students learn and engage at their own pace in collaborative environments, to producing optimal working conditions for students. After all, shouldn’t the very purpose of education be to support student learning in the best way possible?

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