Does it really matter if you’re in the same room as your teacher during a lesson?
The bulk of the conversation is flowing one way, like a television broadcast. There’s seldom a hands-on element to a lecture. And if you’re not physically passing notes to the person sitting next to you, there’s no real reason you have to sit with your peers.
If ever there was a forum primed to be overhauled in the digital age, it’s the classroom. And that’s especially true once you advance into the senior ranks of learning.
Webinars in higher education are going to become standard as we creep further into the digital realm. The night school of the future is going to most closely resemble a group video chat, and you’ll never need to leave home again to improve your employment prospects.
Webinars in Higher Education Are Just Digital Lectures
We used the term webinar here because it lends itself more accurately to the didactic nature of higher education than, say, video conference or group video call. Those other terms imply all the participants are on an equal footing, like a business meeting around a boardroom table. Truthfully, though, when it comes to education there’s only one person who has all the answers and only one person standing alone in the front.
The term webinar comes from a digitalization of the word seminar, another scenario in which a lot of people are paying money to gather and listen to one expert. Fortunately, it’s a dynamic that is easily replicated online.
Just as the average seminar involves a key speech or presentation (or many of these) followed by a little audience interaction and Q&A, so too does the average webinar. People have been staging them more for than 20 years–the term webinar was registered in 1998–and as digital communications technology has evolved, so too have the sophistication and reach of basic online lecturing.
And online learning is growing in popularity among older students.
6.3 Million Online Learners
According to research published earlier this year, there are more than 6.3 million students in the U.S. enrolled in at least one online course. The majority of those students are employed while they study online, with more than a third studying in order to switch careers. In fact, the average age of an online learner is 32.
The appeal of online learning and webinars in higher education lies primarily in their flexibility. Not having to visit classes in person removes travel times, easing the burden on juggling home and work life by letting students attend during down times.
That flexibility is possible because of the increasing accessibility of live online video. The average U.S. broadband connection for domestic homes continues to increase, and there are now more than half a dozen major providers in competition with each other to reduce costs. Add the fact that you can buy a state-of-the-art webcam with 4K resolution, facial recognition, and all manner of auto-tracking and framing for less than $200, and webinars lie comfortably within the reach of the average working American.
And the bottom line is that online webinars can be just as effective as in-person lectures.
Quality Education from the Comfort of Home
Analysis carried out by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 found that online students “modestly” outperformed their peers engaged in traditional classroom settings. Modest may seem like a lukewarm outcome, but if online learning even achieves parity with in-room methods, then all the other benefits of cost, accessibility, time management, and flexible scheduling gain even greater value–and, perhaps more importantly, the method can be seen as normal and acceptable rather than as a “lesser” substitute for an in-person classroom.
If the outcome is the same, why reorganize your working life and trek across town each day fighting traffic and parking to get an education you could gain at home, at night, when it better suits your adult life?
And as we mentioned above, all the important functions of the classroom experience can be replicated online. They can sometimes even be improved. Educators are already experimenting with flipped classrooms that introduce kids to a concept in an online setting and follow that up with face-to-face teaching and review. At the same time, the instant connections of video calls have dramatically increased the ability of schools to bring in guest lecturers and even to go on inexpensive virtual field trips. There’s also a case to be made that online teaching opens more opportunities for specialized experts to enter the teaching industry and draw on a boundless student population rather than be restricted by localized interest and resources.
We’re not at the point of facing empty lecture halls and campuses anytime soon, but it’s clear there’s a movement and a motivation among mature students to use digital tools to gain an education–and with the convenience of video conferencing, who can blame them?