In “Who is Driving the Online Locomotive,” Rob Jenkins asks some pertinent questions about the force and direction of online education. There is definitely the feeling that something is coming, and those who aren’t prepared will be lost by the wayside…or flattened by the train.
However, this feeling of online education as the next-big-thing has been palpable for a couple of decades now. The latest gust of wind in the sails has been the infamous MOOC, but it’s really more about the intersection of budget cuts and the ubiquity of social networking. It’s also very unfortunate that there is usually little discussion of the differences between types of online classes – a MOOC with thousands of participants is a very different thing from a small online-class of 40 students.

In the article, Jenkins describes cost as a major factor propelling online education forward from the administrative perspective:

Online courses enable colleges to enroll students and “deliver content” inexpensively, since they don’t require classrooms, parking spaces, restrooms, or, in some cases, even faculty offices.

This idea that online education is inexpensive is pretty common, but without more clarity regarding the type of online class there is no way to confirm the cost savings, if any even exist. Rather than replacing traditional education, the push toward online classes is creating new demands that require greater investments in technology, training, and bureaucratic infrastructure.

For the moment, many of these institutional investments are being financed through venture capital, such as:

– server farms, online hosting services, programmers, engineers, security consultants, faculty liaisons for software and SaaS platforms, cloud storage, Internet bandwidth, on-site and off-site backup, graphic designers, training and testing, desktop computers, phone systems, customer service representatives, sales representatives, marketing, and other corporate necessities.

Although these online classes are digital, this does not somehow make them immaterial. The back-end of online education requires a huge amount of computational and networking infrastructure, and most importantly, people with advanced technological skill sets. Online education might feel like it’s less expensive, but the costs are very real.