Opinions of online education vary greatly. Certainly some of it has fallen prey to the rampant consumerism that has dominated so many other ‘markets.’ But some of it truly serves a very important purpose beyond the old-fashioned correspondence course roots from which it has grown. Perhaps no place is that more apparent than here in the very unique state of Maine.
I was reading the latest Down East and came across an article about the island of Matinicus, officially known as a plantation in Maine, that happens to be the furthest permanent settlement from the mainland. During the height of summer traffic, the ferry from the mainland visits the island four times per month. The island has no store or restaurant, but the article briefly mentioned a visitor (or anyone else, for that matter) could buy fresh baked goods from island resident Eva Murray, a former student of mine.
As it happens, I have, for about six years, been teaching online courses in astronomy and the history of mathematics for the University of Maine at Machias. Over the years I have had students like Eva from some fairly out-of-the-way places (mostly, but not always, in Maine) such as Swan’s Island, Jackman, and even Timbuktu. Most of my students (including those from the last three locations I listed) have been teachers who needed their teaching credentials re-certified. In Maine, recertification requires taking courses from post-secondary institutions. While Maine has a fairly well-distributed public college and university system, there are still numerous places – like the ones I mentioned above – that are physically very, very far from any such institution. This is probably more true in Maine than in any state east of the Mississippi (for instance, the majority of Maine towns are actually officially known as unorganized territories – while Maine is ‘only’ 38th in population density compared to other states, we’d be even lower if you didn’t count the two southernmost counties). Maine has settlements that are inland that are really only reachable by float plane! (I’d give a link to Clayton Lake, but there really isn’t a meaningful one that I could find).
So, it is in this sense that I think there is a genuine need for good, quality online education. While I may not be teaching these online courses much longer due to a growing number of other obligations, I hope that in some small way I have helped these communities, perhaps to preserve their way of life in a rapidly encroaching world.