How Did the Internet Change the Way We Learn?

Posted under: Internet

The internet has changed almost every aspect of our lives. It has made it easier for us to communicate with one another, which has brought us closer together and expanded our social networks, and it has allowed businesses to offer their customers products and services that would have been unimaginable not too long ago.

The internet has also changed the way we entertain ourselves. Movies and TV shows can now be accessed with a few flicks of our fingers, and online gaming and social media have given us many new free-time activities.

All of these changes carry their own positives and negatives. For every person you find who thinks the internet has improved communication you will find someone else who thinks it has turned us into anti-social screen addicts.

However, one area where the internet is changing the way we do things that gets people excited is education. Digital technology has opened the door for many new ways of learning, and this provides a promising picture of the future.

Of course, this doesn't mean internet-based learning is without its flaws, but, in general, it allows us the opportunity to learn in more ways, making us smarter and more prepared to deal with the challenges of the future.

What exactly do these changes look like? Some you might expect whereas others might surprise you. And some apply to children in school and others apply to adults. In fact, it's hard to find areas of the education world the internet hasn't touched. 

Stats About Online Learning

eLearning statistics[1], [2], [3], [4], [5]

How The Internet Has Changed Learning for Good

When considering the different ways the internet has changed how we learn, it's easy to see why people are so excited. In general, there are a ton of new opportunities for us to improve ourselves, such as:

Increased Self-Learning

Probably the most obvious way that the internet has changed the way we learn is that it has made us more self-sufficient learners. Knowledge has been democratized, meaning it can be accessed by anyone, not just the privileged few.

No longer do you need to be associated with a university or have a large collection of books to be able to study a specific topic. Instead, all you need to do is punch in a search to Google and read a few articles or watch a few videos.

Furthermore, thanks to digitization, the internet has made it easier for us to access books and other educational resources. Just think of that classic scene when someone interested in learning about a topic goes to the library and takes out ten books. Not only is reading all of these impractical for most of us, but not everyone wants to learn in this way. Thanks to the internet, you don't need to.

Academic journals can be accessed online and more and more printed books are being turned into eBooks every day, making it easier for you to amass a collection of materials about the subjects you want to study. 

This instant access to educational materials would have been nothing but a dream just twenty or thirty years ago. However, this was the original purpose of the internet - computer scientists wanted to make it easier for academics to share their research and communicate with one another - and now it is fulfilling this purpose more effectively than perhaps anyone could have imagined.

Distance Learning

The internet has also changed where we can learn. Before, to be able to study and learn, one needed to be in a location where learning took place: a school, training center, library, etc. But this is no longer the case. Instead, we can learn pretty much wherever there is an internet connection.

This feature of modern learning is most present at colleges, especially graduate schools. Busy professionals don't always have the time to travel to campus and sit through a class, but they still want to be able to study to further themselves and open more opportunities for their careers.

This has led to steady growth in distance learning at universities. More and more schools offer online degrees, or they give students the chance to do a significant portion of their program online. Some universities exist entirely online, although these programs have been under some scrutiny in recent years. 

Here are some stats about distance learning to show you how significant this trend is:

Student statistics

[1], [2], [3]

24/7 Learning

Because the internet allows us to study on our own wherever we are, it has also allowed for "around the clock" learning. Of course, studying 24 hours a day, seven days a week is going to saturate your brain and likely cause you to retain less, but that's not the point. Instead, what is exciting is that you can learn around the clock.

This is important because not everyone can be present during classes, both physically and mentally, and they do not have to force themselves to try to be when they simply can't. Instead, they can choose the ideal moment for them to sit down and study, which makes learning more enjoyable, less stressful, and generally speaking more effective.

We see this concept of 24/7 learning being used a lot in schools. Teachers can assign something to students for a point in the future, and then they can leave students to complete it when it makes the most sense for them. Students, especially younger ones, will groan that they can't ever escape school, but in the end, it's in their own best interest.

Professional Development (eLearning)

Most people see professional development as an important part of their jobs and good companies recognize they would do well to invest in their employees and help them be better at their jobs. This is because people nowadays want to grow at their place of work. In fact, a lack of professional development is one of the main reasons people choose to leave their jobs for another, making training and continued education an important part of employee retention.

However, it has traditionally been difficult for companies to offer their employees professional development opportunities simply because of the expense involved. Tuition reimbursement programs are all but dead, and it's expensive to send people to conferences, training sessions, seminars, etc.

The internet, though, has given rise to eLearning, which has made it much easier for companies to invest in their employees' education. Developing eLearning platforms is still not cheap, but they can be distributed to wider audiences and updated more frequently as knowledge changes and grows. This means a company can get a lot more bang for their buck from an eLearning platform.

In general, companies are responding to this and making eLearning part of the benefits packages they offer their employees. Here are some more stats about eLearning that should help you understand the scope of this trend:

eLearning at Work[1], [2], [3]

Flipped Learning

For most of us, going to school consisted of the following:

1.      Go to class and listen to a lecture or demonstration

2.      Do homework that reinforces what we learned in class

3.      Return to class to review what we did at home

4.      Repeat

This system can work quite well, but it arguably leaves some of the most valuable learning time - that which we spend putting what we learned into action - for the moments when we're away from our peers and teacher. However, before the internet, there was no other choice.

But now, we do have other options, and this phenomenon is known as flipped learning. It's called such because all we do is flip the process around. Teachers provide students with material to review at home, such as video demonstrations or recorded lectures, and then students spend time in class doing the work they would have done at home.

The advantage of this is that when they do this work in the classroom, students can collaborate with peers and also get help from the teacher, which tends to make the exercise more productive.

Of course, there are situations where doing things the traditional way makes more sense, but the internet gives us many more options, which makes it easier for teachers to be more effective.

Differentiated Instruction

One of the big breakthroughs in education in the last few decades has been the realization that students learn in very different ways. Some are visual, others are auditory, and others are verbal, and so on. Yet up until now, even if we've known this, we've had no other choice than to teach all students in roughly the same way. There are simply too many students and not enough teachers for us to be overly-accommodating.

However, the internet is making it easier for us to teach students in different ways. For example, building off the concept of flipped learning, teachers could provide students with different materials to study all at the same time. More specifically, they could upload a video, a text, and a diagram to their virtual classroom. Students would then be able to go through this material and focus on that which explained the concepts most effectively.

This helps reduce the possibility that students fall behind. In the old days, if you couldn't keep up, that was your problem. However, we're realizing this is not the case, and the internet allows us to be more flexible and give more and more students the chance they deserve to learn and do well in school.

Increased Collaboration

We are all aware of the impact the internet has had on our ability to communicate. All we need to do is reach into our pockets and count the ways we can reach those with whom we want to talk to see just how easy we have it. Fortunately, this increased communication has spilled over into education, which has made it much easier for students to collaborate.

In general, collaboration enhances learning. Working with others makes problem-solving more productive and it allows students to challenge themselves in new ways. And while the internet has not made collaboration more effective per se, it has made it much easier.

From online chats to shared documents (Google Docs, for example) to workflow platforms and video conferencing, it is now easier than ever for students to work together even when they can't meet in person. Some may say that meeting face-to-face is better, which it may be, but it's not always possible, and the internet makes sure collaboration doesn't get lost when group members can't meet face-to-face.

Diversified Viewpoints and Enhanced Creativity

Another huge benefit of the internet when it comes to learning is that it exposes us to much more material. In the past, we had to rely on what we could find in books, and we had to rely on the books we could access. This was and still is very limiting because it not only provides us with less content from which to draw inspiration, but it also increased the chances we come up with something that's already been done.

Now, thanks to the internet, students can access hundreds if not thousands of examples of similar work. This allows them to hear different opinions, which expands their viewpoint and makes them think more, but it also forces them to be more creative because they need to work harder to come up with something unique.

Of course, students will complain that all this has done is made their lives more difficult, but, again, it's in their best interest. However, this effect of internet-based learning is not just limited to students. People of all ages benefit from the diversity of perspectives and work examples out there, which pushes us all forward and causes us all to rise to new levels.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling often gets a bad reputation because it removes kids from school and denies them the opportunities to develop socially and make friends. However, it's difficult if not impossible to beat the level of individual attention a student can receive from being homeschooled, leaving parents who see teaching their own children as the best option in a bit of a conundrum. However, thanks to the internet and eLearning, students who are homeschooled can now collaborate with one another without being physically present in a school

Over the years, the number and percentage of students who are homeschooled in the United States have grown. And while we can't say for certain this is a direct result of the opportunities afforded by the internet, it is certainly a factor. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues as it becomes easier and easier for students to learn online.

Some Drawbacks of Online Learning

As you can see, the internet has brought about many forms of positive change. But as is always the case with progress of any kind, the internet has brought us forward in some areas and held us back in others. Here are some of the new challenges we must face thanks to the growth in internet-based learning:

Excessive Multitasking

Learning online gives us the illusion we can multitask while we learn. For instance, just think about how you learn online. If you're like most people, then you likely have several tabs open, one of which is social media, and you probably jump back and forth between them every so often. At the surface, this doesn't seem like a big deal, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest this behavior makes it harder for you to learn.

So, while the internet has made it much easier for us to learn, it has also provided us with many more distractions that make it more difficult for us to learn. However, this isn't necessarily the internet's fault so much as our own. Just because social media is there doesn't mean we need to use it all the time, especially when we should be placing our full attention on learning.

Reliance on Self-Sufficiency

For internet learning to be effective, students need to be more self-sufficient. For example, for "flipped learning" to make sense, students need to actually engage with the materials the teacher has provided for them to review at home. If they don't, then they will show up for class unprepared and the in-class learning that takes place will be less effective.

Examples of this can be found in almost every example of online learning. As a result, it's always best to say that the internet has opened up more opportunities for learning, or it's made it easier to learn, rather than it's made us smarter.

Inequality of Access

Perhaps the biggest downside to internet-based learning is that it has helped sharpen the divide between those who have and those who don't. The internet opens up so many possibilities that many educational systems are relying on it more and more as their primary means of teaching. But for this to work, students need to not only have access to the internet, but they also need to have the devices required to participate in learning. In more affluent areas, schools can provide students with these devices, but this isn't always the case.

This phenomenon is known as the digital divide, and many feel it will be the primary source of inequality as the world continues to get more and more digital. However, one could also argue that these inequalities have always existed and that the digital divide is merely a newer version of an age-old problem. But because of how quickly things change in the modern world, it's possible this division drivers us further apart even faster. Only time will tell, of course, but it's something to keep in mind.

Reliability

While on the one hand, the internet gives us access to many more viewpoints and perspectives, one could easily argue that the democratization of information has led to a downgrade in its quality. Not everyone is an expert, but they like to think they are when they're typing on the internet, and people, especially kids, tend to think what they read online is always the truth.

This presents us with a unique challenge because we don't want to discourage unique thinking and contrary points of view, but we also don't want to encourage mistruths and falsehoods that can be damaging to society. It's another example of the constantly shifting line between freedom of speech and censorship that seems to be dominating much of today's public discussions.

As a result, it's important to simultaneously teach students how to use the internet as a source of knowledge but also how to think critically and discern less-than-reliable information that is being presented to achieve a certain aim. This will hopefully help us build up a defense system against bad information that will allow us to use the internet and all the learning potential it offers.

Conclusion

In general, the internet has brought about more positive changes regarding how we learn than negative ones. It has opened the door for both children and adults alike to be more self-sufficient learners and also to educate themselves in the ways that are most effective for them. This will help us develop a generation of thinkers who can help us deal with the complex challenges we will soon face, but this will only happen if we help them learn the skills needed to make full use of this wonderful tool.