How The Web Is Revolutionizing Learning

Modern economies require that people invest in the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and information throughout most of their lives. Yet the basic methods of acquiring such human capital have hardly changed since the time of Socrates. For 2,500 years, teachers and students have met face-to-face for lectures and discussion. The growth of the Internet may revolutionize this system by allowing "distance learning," in which teachers and students interact closely even though they are separated both physically and in time.

My professional research on human capital and my long career as a teacher led to a fascination with the Internet as a medium of instruction. As a result, I have been involved in the development of a for-profit company,, that is delivering online courses, especially in economics and business, through contracts with employers.

The key economic advantage of distance learning over traditional on-site schooling is that it saves students time. The value of the time spent learning is the principal cost of investment in human capital among adults with even moderate earnings. It is especially large for executives and highly skilled employees. Web-based instruction eliminates regular commutes to colleges and other teaching facilities, which can amount to more than an hour each way. Online instruction also allows greater time flexibility for students to interact with course materials, "chat" with other students, take quizzes, and submit written papers. People with full-time jobs can choose the most convenient time to do their coursework: during weekends, before work, or after.

Thousands of Internet students could take a single, popular course, instead of the small numbers in a typical classroom. The spread of faster and, ultimately, of broadband access to the Web enables online teachers to move about and gesticulate as if they were in front of live audiences. They can enliven lectures with colorful graphics and attractive simulations. Online instruction may well widen the market and raise the popularity of "superstar" teachers who command large audiences and very high salaries.

Although Web-based teachers and their students may be scattered all over the world, the Internet can help to overcome the disadvantages of physical separation. "Chat rooms" encourage group discussions among students and teachers and reduce the feeling of isolation fostered by sitting alone in front of a computer. Internet instructors can also customize their questions and discussion to fit the needs of individual students.

Distance learning appeals mainly to adults who want to take courses toward a bachelor's or master's degree, or maintain and upgrade job skills that have grown dated. Highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, have always had to keep up with change in their fields by reading and by taking short courses. But the continual introduction of new technologies makes skills obsolescence a serious prospect for all professionals and for many other working adults.

WORK FARE. For example, to better assess and manage their considerable investments, financial officers of large companies need to understand the use of modern options markets to reduce risks. And growing numbers of men and women in many nations want to learn to read and write English, the global language of trade and commerce.

Already, U.S. colleges and universities offer over 6,000 accredited courses on the Web. Some students customize their online degrees by choosing courses offered by different colleges located all over the U.S. and in other countries, too. Clearly, physical proximity between schools is not necessary for their online cooperation. Meanwhile, for-profit companies have begun to provide online instruction in numerous subjects. To gain faster acceptability and recognition, some of these companies have entered into cooperative arrangements with accredited colleges and universities.

On-the-job training and learning offer a particularly promising online market. Companies have long provided investments in employee education mostly in-house, eliminating travel time to off-site schools. Distance learning offers an opportunity to outsource teaching to specialized companies without taking employees away from their work. Web-based courses are rapidly developing in information technology, finance, accounting, marketing, management, the global economy, and many other subject areas.

The Internet has begun to radically change the teaching of adults in the U.S. who want to improve their skills or further their general education. Before long, this will become a global movement, as access to the Web continues to spread rapidly to other nations.