While we've seen what happens to industries that have an online equivalent – the newspaper industry, for example, has seen much better days, as have the record store and the video store – some industries that likely thought themselves safe have seen that the Internet's reach is much longer and much more potent than previously thought.
The newest area suffering is one that thought it could work with the Internet, and though it does, is also finding that it can be in part replaced by it too. The market being hit like this is the education market, and the Internet is changing the way a lot of people think about school.
In recent days, there’s been plenty of focus on so-called "Massive Open Online Courses" (MOOC), in which universities take the content of several courses and put it online for free consumption by anyone willing to point a browser at it.
Naturally, the idea of colleges making courses available at no charge is a significant game-changer, but what's really getting interest is the idea of a more personalized education, made possible with online tools.
The original model featured a professor throwing material at a roomful – the size of which varied constantly – of students who were then expected to temporarily memorize the content long enough to spit it back up onto an exam, which was then deemed “learning.” Those who couldn't absorb the material long enough to represent successfully were called "not cut out for school" and the system carried on.
Though even the system could tell that this was a fairly big problem; of those who tried to get a bachelor's degree, only 56 percent would pull it off according to numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics. That means that 44 percent of students would waste some amount of time and resources trying to master the "absorb and report" method of education.
Online tools, meanwhile, look to improve matters by taking the broadcast out of the classroom. Students are given access to lectures, videos, podcasts and the like before they go to class, and class time – as well as grades – is more devoted to discussion, to problem solving, to the building of critical thinking skills (which by and large got short shrift under the old model) and the like.
But above all, students learn the skills necessary for a knowledge-based economy: how to find information, how to articulate information, and how to make a stance understood based on supporting facts.
There's no denying that the education system, especially that of the United States, could do with some shoring up. Getting students better prepared for the future by teaching them how to handle information and correctly route it, as well as use it to prove points, is a valuable course of action. We're already seeing this to some extent – public schools have long been challenged by the "homeschooling" concept, and the Internet is putting incredible amounts of educational power and opportunity in the hands of those who would teach their children themselves at home.
A better educational system starts with the tools to make it happen, and the Internet has provided them. Now all that's left is the will to use them, and that's a commodity that's growing in its own right.
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