How the Internet Will Change How We Learn

In the 21st century, online learning will constitute 50% of all learning and education. [Do you have a reference for this figure?  Do you want to say, "...I   think that online learning will...] The rapid rise of learning on the Internet will occur not because it is more convenient, cheaper, or faster, but because cognitive learning on the Internet is better than learning in-person. Among the growing number of experts tracking this development, Gerald Celente, author of the popular book Trends 2000, summarizes the move towards online learning most succinctly: "Interactive, online learning will revolutionize education. The education revolution will have as profound and as far-reaching an effect upon the world as the invention of printing. Not only will it affect where we learn; it also will influence how we learn and what we learn" (Celente, 1997, p. 249). Recent research reported in the Washington Post cites studies showing that online learning is equally as effective as learning in-person. [Citation?] And note that we state "cognitive learning," not all learning. [Who is "we"?  Is this what the Post story said? This is confusing. Too, if you use this sentence, you need to elaborate on the distinction between "cognitive learning" and "learning."]

It is still very early in the development of online learning, but projections for the potential success of online learning are already emerging. The best guide to the next century lies in history and in examples of technological transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The automobile and tractor were the driving forces for the Industrial Age. The tractor eventually was demonstrated not only to cover more acres than a horse-drawn plow, but to plow deeper (read: better) and thus increase productivity.

Some sectors of society clung to the horse-drawn vehicle, of course. The military still had a cavalry in 1939 to confront Hitler’s tanks before the obvious mismatch was addressed (Davis, 1993). The tractor changed education for the 20th century as well. Prior to the tractor and automobile, one room schoolhouses were placed every six miles so that a child would only have to walk, at most, three miles to school. The one room schoolhouse necessitated a single teacher for multiple grade levels, contained in a single room. With the automobile, people migrated to towns, and even rural residents could take buses to school. With these transitions, one-room schoolhouses were made obsolete by consolidated schools with many rooms and a teaching staff. In the state of Washington, for example, nearly 20% of rural one room schoolhouses were closed between 1935 and 1939 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1945).

When online learning is combined with a more interactive and facilitative in-person learning, it will easily out-perform today’s outmoded one-size-fits-all traditional lecture delivery system. "Digital media and Internet communications will transform learning practices," notes Peter J. Denning of George Mason University in his How We Will Learn (1996, p. 2).

Here are a few of the effects of online learning that will occur in just a few years:

[Should we modify your sentence by stating, "I predict that...."?]

Perhaps the most devastating and revolutionary change will be how the Internet will change how we learn. As we enter the Information Age--an era of lifelong learning, an era of online learning--distance will have nothing to do with "distance education." By this I mean that even when a teacher is in close geographical proximity to learners, the quality of the cognitive learning and teaching will be higher when the cognitive part of the learning is conducted over the Internet. Keoko University in Japan, for example, is already establishing online learning for its on-campus students (Eisenstodt, 1997).

In this article I will outline what we already know and can forecast about how the Internet and online learning will change how we learn. We know, for example, that the economic driving forces in the 21st century will be the microchip and the Internet, just as the automobile was the economic force for change in the 20th century. And we know that business will need its workers to learn more, more quickly, and at a lower cost, to remain competitive. We will show that these market forces will create the need and desirability for online learning.

How We Learn Today

For most of history the standard educational setting has been an instructor (or teacher, leader, presenter, or speaker) standing in front of a group of people. This is the most common learning design in society, whether it be for college credit classes, noncredit courses, training in business and industry, high school instruction, or even a Sunday School class.

Education has typically been conceived as "information transfer," the process of transferring information and knowledge from the teacher’s head into the heads of the learners. In order successfully to complete that transfer, teachers have had to talk most of the time–-a mode of delivery that, even today, has been the most effective, most efficient, most desirable way to learn.

But as educators we know that the traditional lecture is not the only way to learn. We, as learners, learn in many different ways, at different times, and from a variety of sources (Knowles, 1973). We also know that learning is not purely a cognitive process, but that it also involves the emotions and even the spirit (Apps, 1991). In other words, learning does not merely involve information transfer, but also social, cultural, and interpersonal exchange.

The Internet is, in effect, exploding the traditional method of teaching into two parts--cognitive learning, which can be accomplished better with online learning; and affective learning, which can be accomplished better in a small group discussion setting.

Why cognitive learning is more successful on the Internet

Cognitive learning involves facts, data, knowledge, mental skills—in other words, what can be tested. This is the sort of informational exchange traditionally served by the lecture format; but it can be achieved faster, cheaper and better online.

There are several ways that online learning can be better than classroom learning:

Learners can acquire data and facts faster using the Internet. Officials at University Online Publishing, which has been involved in online learning more than most organizations, say that a typical 16-week college course, for example, can be cut to 8 weeks because students learn more quickly online.

Finally, technology has consistently proven to drive down costs [this is controversal; we absolutely need a reference here or we need to insert  "in my opinion"] . Recent reports indicate that education costs are growing at over 5% for 1998, well above the 3% average for all other sectors of the economy [citations? Education in the US? In corporations? Public education?]. With education costs in the traditional system soaring, technological innovations promise the ability to deliver an education more cheaply.

Online courses are exerting downward pressure on prices. Officials at Regents College in Albany, NY, which collects data on 8,000 distance learning courses, say that prices are dropping already. One community college in Arizona, for example, offers online courses at just $32/credit hour for in-state residents, and $67/credit hour for out-of-state learners.

More Interaction Occurs with Online Learning

The heart and soul of an online course will not be the lecture, the delivery, the audio or video. Rather, it will be the interaction between the participants and the teacher, as well as the interaction among the participants themselves. This daily interaction among participants, for example, will form what John Hagel, author of Net Gain (1997), calls a "Virtual Community."

The next time you are in a class, count the number of questions asked of the teacher during a one-hour time period. Because of the instructor’s need to convey information, the time able to be devoted to questions is very short. In an online course, everyone can ask questions, as many questions as each learner wants or needs.

In an online course, there is more discussion. In a classroom, a group discussion with thirty participants but only six to eight people making comments is a successful discussion that will take up almost an entire hour. And almost everyone in the group will agree it was lively. In an asynchronous discussion forum on the Internet with thirty participants and six to eight people making comments, the discussion would be perceived as lagging.

The same number of comments on the Internet do not appear to be as lively a discussion as when delivered in person because the capability and capacity of the Internet is that every person can make comments—at the same time. A transcript of a typical online discussion would take hours to give verbally. Online, we can participate in discussions easily, absorbing more information in a much shorter time and engaging in more interaction, not less.

How the Internet Will Change In-person Learning

Because the Internet can deliver information more quickly, at a lower cost, whenever a learner wants, as often as a learner wants, and with more interaction and dialogue, the Internet will replace the traditional in-person classroom system as the dominant mode of delivery for education. But the Internet will not replace in-person learning.

While we will spend 50% of our time learning online, we will spend the other 50% of our time learning in person. But in-person learning will also be radically different from what is most common today. [Are these YOUR projections or someone else’s thoughts? If they are yours, you should say "in my opinion" or "I think"; otherwise provide a citation] There will be almost no need for the traditional lecture. However, there will be a tremendous need for teachers to become facilitators of learning, understanding how we learn, and able to work with learners as individuals. The sage on the stage will become the guide on the side.

Though part of learning is centered around content, we as educators know that more of learning is dependent on the learner as an individual, a person. Learning is not just cognitive; it also involves the emotions and the spirit. It involves "unlearning." It involves what educator Jerold Apps calls "grieving the loss of old ideas." [citation?]

The likely format for this kind of learning will be chairs in a circle, with a facilitator leading discussions, dialogues, role-plays and more. And it is this kind of teaching and learning that we actually know very little about, because we as instructors have had so little time to engage in it.

The Internet certainly did not create facilitative learning. This kind of learning has been around for a long time, and its value has been well established. Its use will grow exponentially with the increase of online learning, because the Internet allows the cognitive information to be delivered faster, cheaper, and better, thus allowing more time and resources to be devoted to facilitative in-person learning. [This is a possible result of increased usage of online learning. Isn’t it also possible that teachers will spend their newly discovered free-time in the lab, for example, or doing other sorts of research? In other words, is a general lack of time REALLY the cause for most teachers not using more interactive teaching styles, or is it a lack of concern? Do you want to acknowledge such a possibility?]

For now, the elementary school teacher comes closest to being the model for this new kind of in-person teaching. As a parent, I have experienced my son’s teachers being able to sit down and talk with me for thirty minutes or more about my son as a learner--not about the class, not about content, but about my son’s learning. This is where the focus of in-person learning will be as online learning usage increases.

As online courses grow and change how we learn, some courses will involve almost all in-person learning and teaching. And some courses will involve almost all online learning. And probably the majority of courses will involve both online learning and in-person learning.

What an Online Course May Look Like in the Future

Below is one scenario of how a typical online course, or the online portion of course, may look like in the future.

    1. There are probably at least one thousand people in the world who want to learn any given topic at any given time, even mango trees or Adlai Stevenson.
    2. Because people will want to learn from the foremost authority, there will be only 2-3 online courses for each topic. [does this mean that only professors from Harvard, Stanford, et al will teach online courses?]
    3. The cost of an online course will be extremely low, probably under $100, even for credit classes. This will occur because educational institutions can make more money on high volume and low prices than they can on low volume and high prices. It will occur also because the only way an educational institution can lose its market-share for a given course is because the course is priced higher than an alternative course. [$100 for a course is a low price for the average American or European, but what about students in 3rd World/Developing countries? Further, most Americans and Europeans have access to computer technologies—not the case with students in other areas. Do you want to address this issue or specifiy that you are talking about the developed world?]

The Forces Driving Online Learning

There are several forces that will turn this scenario for online learning into reality, and turn it into reality very quickly. They include:

Business. Business will be the biggest force. Businesspeople now understand that in order to remain competitive and profitable, they will need to learn constantly. The only cost effective way for this to happen is with online learning.

So businesspeople will require employees to learn online, and will look to recruit college graduates who can learn online. Colleges and universities will quickly adopt online learning because businesses will demand that capability from their graduates.

Youth. My children have never taken a computer course. And they never will. Because they are not simply computer literate, they grew up in a digital culture. Young people want to learn online. They understand the future, because it is the world in which they must work and compete. Young students will choose online learning.

Competition. Just one college offering online courses at a low cost and recruiting high volume will force other educational institutions to do the same. In fact, many colleges are involved in online learning, and the cost of courses is declining steadily, according to an official at Regents College, which keeps a database of over 8,000 distance learning courses.


Online learning is rapidly becoming recognized as a valid learning delivery system. The number of part-time students in higher education, to name just one educational system, now outnumbers full-time students. The number of colleges offering online courses last year soared to over 1,000, and the number is growing. Online graduate programs and certificate programs have doubled over one year ago. Online learning has grown exponentially in the business sector, according to Elliot Masie of Saratoga Springs, NY, one of the foremost experts on online training in the workforce. Surveys by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) see online training replacing much of on-site training in the near future.

Online learning will do for society what the tractor did for food. A century ago food was expensive, in limited supply, and with very little variety. Today food is relatively cheap, in great supply in the US, and with tremendous variety. The Internet will do the same for education. More people will be able to learn more, for much less cost, and with a tremendous variety in choice of topics and subjects. It is something that societies of the past could only dream about. And it will come true for us in a very short time.

References [please put in APA style]

1. Celente, Gerald (1997). Trends 2000. New York: Warner Books, page 249. 2. Goldberg, Debbie (1998, April 5). Teaching Online. The Washington Post, page R04. 3. Davis, Kenneth S. (1993). FDR: Into the Storm 19371940. New York: Random House, page372. 4. Denning, Peter (1996). How We Will Learn. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, page 2. 5. Eisenstodt, Gale (1997, February:March). Japan Shuts Down Its Education Assembly Line. FastCompany, pp. 4042. 6. Knowles, Malcolm (1973). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf PublishingCompany, page 42. 7. Apps, Jerold W. (1991). Mastering the Teaching of Adults. Malabar, FL: Krieger PublishingCompany, page 1. 8. Thieme, Richard (1996), in a presentation at the Metcom conference, Chicago, IL. Π9. Hagel, John III, and Armstrong, Arthur G. (1997). Net.Gain. Boston: Harvard Business SchoolPress.

Further Reading

1. Celente, Gerald (1997). Trends 2000. New York: Warner Books. 2. Draves, William (1998). Marketing Online Courses, Seminars and Conferences. Manhattan, KS:Learning Resources Network. 3. Draves, William (1997). How to Teach Adults. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network. 4. Hagel, John III, and Armstrong, Arthur G. (1997). Net.Gain. Boston: Harvard Business SchoolPress. 5. Martin, James (1996). Cybercorp. New York: Amacom.


Critical Reviews

The author has done lots of good work with the article; thanks. And it seems that this work is a good source for two articles. One which deals with how individuals learn and how learning changes by using the Internet from an individual point of view (e.g., enables better cognitive learning, etc.), and another article that deals with how society will benefit by implementing an Internet-based learning environment (cost effectiveness, etc.)

In the beginning of the article we read, "The rapid rise of learning on the Internet will occur not because it is more convenient, cheaper, or faster, but because cognitive learning on the Internet is better than learning in-person." So, considering the length of the article it is perhaps logical to expect that it deal with one problem—an analysis of what cognitive learning is and how the Internet makes it better. But soon after, the author says, "Here are a few of the effects of online learning that will occur in just a few years: the average class size for an online course will be 1,000 participants; the average cost of an online course will plummet to less than $100 a course; there will be hundreds of thousands of topics from which learners can choose." These examples may be true, but not all these points speak about cognitive learning and how individuals learn. Reading further the same appears... by providing samples and facts, the author repeats that online learning is better, quicker, and more cost-effective then the ordinary learning. After reading about "Why cognitive learning is more successful on the Internet" it became a bit unclear to me what the author meant by the term 'cognitive learning'. So, as a conclusion ... I see here two wonderful articles to be had by splitting this article into 2 different pieces.

1. Remove all this 'better' 'cheaper' etc. stuff and concentrate on how individuals learn and how online learning helps people learn in a more cognitive way. (Sure, we can answer here that if we provide materials more cheaply, then we help learners to learn in cognitive way, because otherwise learners will not have money to buy this program:):):), but in this learning context we should probably leave economic and other social factors out.

2. Make a general article about online learning, and say right in the beginning that online learning is more effective way to organize learning and cheaper too. Look at learning not from the point of view of the individual, but from an organizational & societal aspect.

RE: "The rapid rise of learning on the Internet will occur not because it is more convenient, cheaper, or faster, but because cognitive learning on the Internet is better than learning in-person." I am concerned about this sentence. This is a rather broad statement, given that there is all manner of evidence that people's learning styles differ. Although the author addresses learning styles later on, he fails to mention the type of student attracted to Internet learning. These students are usually older, motivated self-starters. As such, this describes perhaps half of student learners today. Although the author states later that "But the Internet will not replace in-person learning," this might be better stated closer to the top.

Also, the following paragraphs comparing online learning to transportation seem unecessary, where a better comparison might be drawn to other technology harnessed for education, such as correspondence courses, video and audio in the classroom, educational television, etc. There were plenty of predictions for how those advances would revolutionize teaching. I am also wondering how a statement such as: "When online learning is combined with a more interactive and facilitative in-person learning..." can be combined with a statistic such as "The average class size for an online course will be 1,000 participants;" to prove the author's point.

Principal reasons for disenchantment with traditional lectures are related to a lack of personal attention in large lectures, and generic deliveries of material, which have more to do with the instructor's teaching style than other things. In addition, the cost of these courses is unlikely to be low. Technology is expensive to acquire, expensive to upgrade, and expensive to maintain and troubleshoot. One of the reasons school administrators are interested in online learning is as a potential source of revenue from new, untapped, students so as to bolster the traditional campus. The author makes good points in the article and it is interesting to read, but the opening paragraphs seem to be reaching, and there is a tendency to overstatement in different parts (already noted in the text).

One of the most significant conclusions I drew from the article, which the author may want to address, is how the Internet is likely to push education from being something people look at as a full-time activity, to being a part-time activity. Although the numbers of non-traditional students and employed traditional students already makes this true, the use of convenient online learning may very well make lifelong learning a reality. However other societal barriers must be overcome to make this possible.

Not all sectors of society utilize or are even exposed to much technology. Online learning requires a higher rate of not only computer literacy but reading/writing literacy to be utilized effectively. A common language is also necessary for all those international learners. What if the authority on a topic doesn't speak English? Will the many monolinguists in the U.S. start taking online courses from France or Japan? Will the barriers to higher education become even wider for certain segments of society? Although it has been many years since the transportation revolution the author alluded to, there are still large numbers of people even in the U.S. whose transportation choices are very limited and whose travel has never extended outside their city of birth.

The author may also wish to speculate on what a change in society's perception of educational choices will mean to educational institutions and the way educators are taught.