A recent survey by the Career College Association reported that 9 out of 10 Americans think college is important for career opportunities and 67% believe that education is the key to competitiveness in the global economy. Turns out education can also be the key to keeping your job in an economic downturn. Recent employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that not only do people with more education earn more, but in tough times like these, education provides a buffer against unemployment. The unemployment rate for people with a bachelor's degree or higher as of October 2009 was 4.6%. However, compare that to the percent of people out of work with less than a high school diploma-- 14%. When it comes to unemployment, 10% is a lot. The desire for more employment options is also fueling a spike in enrollment of adults returning to school.
The good news is that technology can help. First, it allows you to build a persuasive argument to inspire your kids. You can find employment and earning potential numbers at the click of a mouse (including charts) at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website so you can show your kids at the dinner table why it's so important to get an education. (Make sure you translate the numbers into a currency your kids will understand, like clothes or cars.)
More importantly, however, communications technologies make education available to people--both young and old--for whom it was previously out of reach. Traditional higher education programs can be prohibitive for a number of reasons: cost, geography, admission requirements, or home and family demands. Also, according to a report by Howell, Williams, and Lindsay Thirty-two Trends Affecting Distance Education: An Informed Foundation for Strategic Planning, the current higher education infrastructure isn't equipped to handle the number of college-bound students coming down the pipeline, not to mention the swelling number of nontraditional students looking to further their education and career options. In 2001, 42% of all students were over age 25. Adult learners are the fastest growing segment of the higher education population.
Brick and mortar institutions can't offer the flexibility to facilitate the needs of many, particularly adult learners, so it's exciting to see different solutions using distance learning models springing up. For example, the Big Bend Community College has established satellite "Community Knowledge Centers" to provide broadband access to their programs. The military is instituting a virtual school program to help the kids in military families stay on track through frequent relocations. The Conterra Telecom Services is connecting eight high schools in the Navajo Nation to the Northeast Arizona Technological Institute of Vocational Education. Where the average distance between high schools is 101 miles and 78% of student have to travel over unpaved roads to school, providing high speed Internet access can make a huge difference.
With the technology we have today, there is no reason why quality education cannot be available to anyone who wants it. In a perfect world, everyone would have a chance to stroll leisurely past ivy-covered halls carrying a swell book bag on their way to a lecture by a Nobel laureate. But it's not. Only about 25% of the population is able to attend a four-year college. Distance education is a powerful way to help expand access and options to the rest.
Contrary to widely-held beliefs, distance-learning is not a sorry second best. It is possible to have very meaningful relationships and learning experiences in asynchronous environments. I know. I've been on both sides of the equaiton. Just like in face-to-face courses, much of the success of an online course is due to the energy the teacher and students invest. But it is the convenience and flexibility in scheduling of the distance learning format that allows most students to continue their education. While there are potential downsides, of course, the disadvantages are vastly outweighed by the alternative--no education.
The U.S. could learn from places like India's Indira Ghandhi National Open University. It provides educational opportunities through distance and open education targeting disadvantaged populations. There are kids working as busboys working in Kuwait studying to be engineers, thanks to this system. We should take notice of both the opportunity and the motivation and energy of so many who are working to take advantage of it.
The world is becoming a smaller place, thanks to technology. This means that competition for jobs, not just goods, is in a global market. The disparity in unemployment across education levels is an example of this trend. If you haven't seen the viral video "Did You Know" on YouTube, watch it to get an idea of the magnitude of this global shift.
Unemployment numbers underscore the importance of an education in slow economic times. But in the global economy, we not only need to get an education, we need to keep learning.
Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining Social Presence in Online Courses in Relation to Student's Perceived Learning and Satisfaction. JALN, 7 (1), 68-88.