Davos is the place where even the most settled dogma gets another hard look.

This year, the big trend that got grilled was “online education”. One of the big things said to be going for online education is as a check on variation in teaching quality. Not all teachers can make complex concepts understandable to the untrained mind, so why not video the lecture of a teacher widely accepted as a master in their field so that the student can watch the video online at their convenience? Many students, regardless of where they might be. Why should a calculus class be taught anew to every incoming class by teachers of widely varying skill? Haven’t we seen this principle at work before in the standardization that triggered the industrial revolution?

Sceptics counter this point with an intriguing analogy. There are roughly two ways to watch a sports game. One is by sitting on a hard bench in a stadium surrounded by thousands of shouting fans, eating junk food and straining to catch the action from 100 metres away. The other is in the comfort of your home, eating a nice, well-cooked snack and savouring the replays and multi-angle streaming made possible by modern broadcast technology. Which of these options, asked the economist, do people queue up to pay for?

The argument is that online education today lacks the social atmospherics that make real-world education much more than just classroom instruction. It is really not yet mature enough to offer the full social experience of brick-and-mortar education and may not be able to do so for a long time. The playground is not the only thing it lacks. It also lacks the other extracurricular offerings that make education holistic, e.g. sports.

Proponents of online education respond that there are other social environments outside the school setting that can supplement online education. Neighbourhood activities plus the full complement of social media technologies, especially as they advance, are perfectly capable of providing the student with the entire panoply of experiences needed for a well-rounded education, and at superior cost and effectiveness, too.

It is not clear, though, to which extent such “substitutes” can truly simulate the institutionalization that has been perfected in the school structure over the centuries. Neighbourhood and community clubs simply do not offer that same level of rigour and discipline. Or the comforts of professional educational psychology and public regulations.

And although the point is frequently made that “it is all about motivation” – meaning that whether online or offline, the driven student will acquire both the soft skills and knowledge requisite to a successful educational and professional career – such arguments downplay the importance of interpersonal coaching in developing motivation, discipline and emotional competence, something still hard to achieve via computers.

Many of the concerns about online education come across as cultural in tone, and so they are.

For instance, one of the strong arguments frequently made in favour of online education is the cost-saving benefits of the model that should, in principle, help accelerate the extension of education to countries where resources are a big issue. Great teachers using great teaching aids (like 3D visualization) can be videotaped in full flow and the results streamed over increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated mobile networks onto devices across the world.

The thing, though, is that in many parts of the developing world, education remains a very status-oriented process. Education is often the bridge from rural to urban, traditional to modern, youth to adult, and disdain to dignity. It is not merely a knowledge thing.

The “credentials” granted by surviving the educational hurdle are often more than a quantification of cognitive competence and very often a certification of social transition. The mass switching of vocational institutes into colleges offering what are seen as white-collar courses, despite deepening graduate unemployment (caused in large part by graduates lacking in technical or entrepreneurial skills) testifies to this cultural reality. For online education to be successful in the developing world, it needs to offer more than knowledge.

Supporters of the digital education phenomenon are keen to remind observers of the growing tendency of traditional colleges to accept courses completed online for academic credit purposes.

Although this trend suggests that online education is more poised to complement traditional education rather than overthrow it, it still raises interesting parallels with the distant education innovation publicized by such successful institutions as the UK’s Open University. Yet, rather than reduce costs, the Open University has over the last three years seen fees charged to distant students rise by nearly four times.

The math is simple. Insofar as credentials remain a major feature of modern educational systems, and credentials require expert grading and assessment, distance and remoteness may actually increase the costs of ensuring academic integrity and maintaining standards.

Employers are and, for the foreseeable future, shall remain focused on traits that are as much competitive as collaborative. The measures for these traits require a certain degree of “residency”. People need to be brought together in groups for these traits to emerge properly and be well measured, since group dynamics mirror the post-school world far better than raw scores. Employers tend to see school grading and assessment as relevant to measuring one’s performance relative to one’s peer group and the context of the performance.

While innovations in online education will increasingly allow some of these cultural and sociological anxieties to be addressed, the question is whether those innovations can go hand-in-hand with a low-cost model for democratizing access to education.

One way to reconcile the positions of the contenders in this debate is to view online education as a tool for injecting resiliency into the modern educational system by fostering a blooming diversity of courses and methods. And resilience, after all, was the theme of the Annual Meeting in Davos this year.

Author: Bright B. Simons is President of the mPedigree Network and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2012.

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