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Before we can talk about the benefits of online learning to education, it helps to agree on the purpose of education. There are many concepts of what education is for. This article


discusses a number of them. A few snippits:

Spreading Knowledge

The view that educational institutions must spread human knowledge is most evident in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) colleges like Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT. These universities set an early example of offering on-line curricula for free because they felt obligated to spread knowledge as widely as they could. A recent Stanford on-line course had 400,000 students, only a few of whom were enrolled in the university.

In a sense, this view of education could be compared to missionary efforts. A missionary dedicates his life to spreading belief in his god; he believes that the glory of his god is worth expending his life, by whatever means seem most effective and suitable. Obviously, to be effective a missionary must have sufficient income to keep body and soul together, but missionaries are famous for very low standards of living. Nobody goes into missions to get rich.

MIT and Stanford certainly don't compare to the privations of an African mud hut, and a holy book isn't enough equipment to spread a thorough understanding of, say, particle physics, but the great STEM universities are not noted for posh student lounges or outlandish professorial salaries. Some professors can supplement their salaries by consulting, others can't or don't, but the university itself doesn't egregiously overpay most of them.

They spend vast sums on facilities, yes - but on scientific facilities for getting, increasing, and spreading human knowledge. Stanford or MIT don't view the 400,000 nonpaying online students as a loss to their exchequer; they glory in a new and more efficient way of communicating values that are important to them, just as televangelists and radio preachers welcomed the arrive of a new way to reach the lost or inflame jihad as the case may be.

Creating Jobs

STEM universities are noted for basic research, but T stands for Technology. This suggests the need for practical application of the knowledge discovered. Applying knowledge means starting a business to sell something useful that resulted from the research, and many STEM universities offer courses in how to do that.

STEM professors are just as greedy as anyone else. The faculty watch for bright, hard-working students whose ideas might lead to wealth. A Stanford professor who was teaching one of the Google guys was an early investor in Google and made himself a few bucks.

The Wall Street Journal reports that MIT has set aside 10% of the space in a new billion-dollar office complex for start-ups to rent at below-market rates. The city of Cambridge plans to require that all new Kendall Square office developments do the same.

Increasing Government Power

Ivy-league colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have supplied a disproportionate number of American Presidents as well as many lesser politicians. Many if not most of the professors at these colleges act as if the purpose of education is to roundly discourage any student from thinking that there's anything good about private business, and that only enlightened government can lead to prosperity of any kind.

The Ivies are sincere in their hostility to business. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and Mike Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, dropped out of Harvard. The Google Guys have maintained close connections to Stanford and MIT carefully cultivates connections to its graduates as they found businesses.

And so on. Read it at


Once we know what education is for, the impact of online learning will be a lot clearer.

Global Implications of EdX, Global implications of edX, Education purpose