Although billions are pouring into this area of education, I hadn't given the question much thought. My generation shepherded the first consumer computer companies to life, after we had finished our education with textbooks, notebooks, pencils and pens. Heck, the fax machine hadn't even been invented. My first "portable" laptop was the size and weight of a small suitcase. I thought the first computer software program that could fax to multiple phone numbers was a miracle.
Now my children accuse me of being addicted to my iPhone. They might be right. And judging from any group of strangers gathered in one place -- on a roadway for example --, I am not alone. In classical China, the relationship between student and teacher was held to be one of the most important paradigms governing society.
What about online education? A decade ago ...
I took an online exam for a professional license. It was an anodyne experience. I drove to an anonymous office park, took a number, waited my turn, and completed my exam amongst others who were taking whatever exam their application fee applied to. There was no interaction with a single human being other than the person who indifferently swiped my credit card.
I suspect the answer to the question about the value of online education depends on context, need and motivation. For the poor, incapacitated, anyone with access to the internet, or with limited access to classrooms and teachers, online education can be a blessing. For those who can't afford attending a university or travel to a school, online education could be a way out and up the economic ladder.
But my friend, an expert, tells me: a significant part of the population, especially for children who -- for one reason or another -- refuse to absorb, can't absorb, or outright reject information coming at them through a computer, online education does not work. I might have been one of those kids. So might my kids.
Online education could be a kind of poisoned chalice. The recitation of facts matches well to the digital age, but real teachers reach people. Exceptional classroom educators are an unalloyed blessing. But not all teachers are exceptional.
One of the claims for online education is that it takes out of the equation the relationship between a student and a bad teacher. Can online education substitute for a good teacher, whose interaction with low performing or marginal or even exceptional students can lead to astonishing results?
My friend in venture capital asked that question rhetorically and didn't know the answer. But my children might be right about this iPhone addiction; we are constantly fiddling and provoking our urge for information. However, loading the internet with educational courses and performance standards built around data, does not help students form subjective judgments.
It's another way to say: you can buy information but you can't acquire wisdom without the benefit of teachers. Once society goes down the road too far with online education, it may be very difficult to find our way back.