In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

Web-based education in Europe and the USA by Lindsey Wright


This is a guest blog post. Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

We are both looking forward to your comments and reactions!


Online education holds the promise to enable people to pursue higher learning no matter where they are geographically. While overall access to education has improved due to online college courses, there are still major infrastructural issues that prevent web-based learning from becoming fully integrated across the entire world. Additionally, investment in web-based education in certain countries remains relatively weak. There is an unfortunately stark contrast in the prevalence of this form of education in the United States compared to Europe. These issues show major differences in how each region views and invests in education.

The benefits of online education are quite clear to some education advocates. The non-profit Sloan Foundation argues that web-based education has almost become a necessity for students who must balance family and professional lives and to be globally competitive in the job market. In 2010 alone, over 5.6 million American college students were enrolled in at least one online class at both conventional universities and for-profit schools.

The American Society for Training and Development, a non-profit workplace training association, contends this new wave of online education, or E-Learning 2.0, is a reaction against the limiting demands of traditional undergraduate life and the stale classroom environment of most universities. Typically students have to invest more or less all their time and considerable money in college, centering their schedules entirely around school. This can drive away students who need jobs to pay for school or are taking care of family members. Meanwhile, conventional classroom environments based on semester-long schedules within a top-down hierarchy and fixed class curriculum seem increasingly unappealing to many.

With increased globalization, market competition has become a matter of innovation at lightning speed. Accordingly, students in a country like the United States want instant data, flexible critical thinking exercises, and a bottom-up or democratic approach to learning. In a sense, the more students capitalize on E-Learning 2.0, the more competitively the student population is prepared for careers in the global world.

This begs the question of investment. If e-learning and online education are great educational investments, then the necessary infrastructure to support them must be put in place first. Access to broadband technologies, incentives for schools to offer online education, and the assumption students are sufficiently technologically adept to participate in e-learning are some of the largest obstacles to widespread web-based education.

According to the World Bank, the US only slightly edges out the European Union in broadband subscriptions. As of 2009, 27.8 percent of the US population has broadband subscriptions. In the 27 nations of the European Union, the figure is 24.6 percent. However, there is a major different in the quality of those connections. The average US broadband speed is 3.9 mbps, while in the EU the range is between 20 to 30 mbps.

Besides actual infrastructure, there’s also the issue of who provides online education. Although Europe’s broadband infrastructure is solid, it isn’t much used for web-based education. Glenn Russell, Professor of Education at Monash University, says European schools don’t invest much in online programs. Although many European online schools exist to help those too economically disadvantaged to enter a conventional college, the number of these virtual schools is relatively low compared to the United States.

Additionally, a major difficulty for these schools is that they cater to their specific region’s language, and are accordingly more or less unable to be transnational. In the United States, students in California or Hawaii are able to take online classes in New England or Florida thanks to minimal cultural and linguistic difference across the country. Moreover, the US’ many for-profit schools can move capital more quickly in order to invest in online programs exclusively for their student bodies.

However, even if the US has more private web-based schools, there are also problems with public online education. A 2010 US News report showed that almost 50 percent of all conventional colleges that offered online education saw their budgets decrease. This may be because tuition is usually lower and room and board costs non-existent when students enroll online.

Additionally, many professors aren’t happy with the idea of online education. Believing that face-to-face discussion and debate in a classroom are more worthwhile, many professors don’t invest in developing online curricula.

Finally, the kinds of institutions providing education online have been the target of major criticism in the US. Detractors argue for-profit online schools don’t measure up to the skills and job prospects traditional institutions provide. Questions regarding the legitimacy of these schools’ business practices and academic quality continue to fuel prejudice (legitimate or not) against web-based schooling and those who’ve earned degrees online.

Comparing online education in Europe and the United States isn’t quite apples and oranges, but it may be Red Delicious vs. Granny Smith. Both continents have different levels of investment in broadband infrastructure, the essential resource for all students to access online education. However, both regions also differ in how web-based schooling is available. While the courses of development will surely be different in the EU and US, online learning will certainly see increased investment in the coming years, even if it continues to be regarded as second-rate on both sides of the pond


  1. Hi Lindsey (and Anna)

    What a fascinating post ! I was surprised at those broadband figures and had to go check. Sure enough, 3.9 was the rate in the US earlier this year. 7.5 in England, 18 in France, 22 in Finland, and of course 61 and 46 in Japan and Korea respectively. WOW.

    Just as the infrastructure is lagging, I think there’s also a bit of a drag in the quality of synchronous e-learning platforms. Although they’re getting better, it’s still a hard environment to keep focus and drive (which is seemingly a main reason why professors dislike it).

    That being said, asynchronous learning has really pulled forward, especially in the private sectors. In any case, I think there’s quite a bit to be said with the older public instititutions being a bit slow to evolve as they have so much invested in physical buildings and “real-time” professors more accustomed to another way of learning.

    I’m excited to see where all of this goes in the next few years. Thanks so much for the interesting read !

    Cheers, Brad

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