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How good a teacher is the Internet?

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jun 17,2020 - Last updated at Jun 17,2020

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Googling the expression “online courses” instantly returns 4,000,000,000 results! What does this really tell us?

Learning from the Internet goes without saying. We didn’t even need the COVID-19 crisis to realise that.

There may be countless ways to learn from the web, but they all can easily be put in two categories so as to help draw a distinction between them. Taking a formal, structured course online is something, and looking for information, for a “one-time” fast and direct way to perform a specific task, to build an object, to understand a topic or to solve a problem, is another.

Online courses are not only growing at an extraordinary rate, but many believe that at some point in the not so distant future the number of online students could exceed those going in person to a school or college. The World Economic Forum has acknowledged that “the […] pandemic has changed education forever”.

Sites that offer to teach you to speak languages in just 15 minutes per day (they don’t specify in how many years you’ll become fluent though…) abound. The celebrated American digital learning platform Udemy claims 50 million students and 57 thousand instructors. Naturally the major colleges in the world, including Harvard to name but one, all have built online programmes.

Learning this way, however, is not an issue per se, for most of the time professional education is offered to students. Besides, potential candidates usually take the time to check the credibility, the reputation and the quality of the courses, and therefore the risk of wasting your time or your money is significantly reduced in these cases.

On the other hand, what can hurt is the one-time search for knowledge and solutions, the fast way to learn something, the learning equivalent of fast food. It can hurt because it may be time consuming, sometimes even frustrating, and in some extreme but not so rare cases can lead to wrong or useless information. In addition to quick web articles that claim to teach you “how to”, the YouTube tutorials videos have become very popular and a major source for fast learning.

The main difficulty here lies in the fact that we want a quick lesson. We have no time to check the validity or the quality of the info. In many an instance we end up just wasting precious time. Which, of course, is a painful contradiction, for in the beginning we were in a hurry to learn something.

My personal experience with this quick way of learning is a 40 per cent win and 60 per cent loss! Considering the fact that I am an IT professional by trade, and therefore do have some ability and experience to carry out a good search in the first place, I can imagine that for other people the win/loss ratio could be worse in terms of results achieved.

I am not even mentioning the traps. These are Internet search results that are fake, that have been posted to take you somewhere else, and that are here to show ads, to play videos that have nothing to do with your initial search keywords, to waste your time, and that are light years away from teaching you anything useful. How easy it is to avoid them, to tell what is true from what is false in these cases is a matter of luck, experience and caution. Digital learning does not always come easy.

No statistics could be found about the exact number of available YouTube tutorials, but from the recent figures published last March by and that say that there are some 1,300,000,000 videos on the gigantic platform, one can imagine that a non-negligible part is tutorials. Writing about them last March, The Guardian published an article titled “From bike mechanics to baking, the video-sharing site offers a goldmine of knowledge”. So perhaps we should look at the bright side.


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