It's something that has been around for as long as technology has permitted it, and has evolved alongside it.

In a recent letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates focused on the power of the internet in improving and widening access to education. He states that the internet has changed so much of what we do – from buying airline tickets to voting in elections – and that it’s high time for the education sector to catch up in this dynamic field.

The scope for innovation is truly vast. The web contains the biggest store of information available to anyone in the world, and the internet is the widest-reaching and most democratic communication medium. A considerable amount of valuable information is already available, and universities in the US and Europe are using online tools to improve this content. Many universities are now posting video lectures, reading materials and other resources for free online. The range of materials covers everything from introductory videos and podcasts to advanced textbooks and detailed research – a true multimedia experience.

However, Gates says that it’s not enough just to have good content: it needs to be organised in a useful way and backed up with a solid teaching support network. It is difficult to test knowledge or prove capabilities without structured academic programs. But this is where the internet can truly shine: an online course is not hampered by physical constraints or the high costs of full-time, contact-based learning. One teacher can easily oversee and support many students from anywhere in the world, and learning can be done at the student’s pace, with access to a wider range of materials, discussions and resources than would be possible in a traditional physical learning environment.

Internet-based training has a bad reputation globally, with the bulk of online training courses not achieving significant educational outcomes for their learners, but the future of online education is looking brighter – at least in South Africa, that is.  Cape Town-based specialist online training firm, GetSmarter, is the first and only entirely online training provider in South Africa to be accredited by a Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), a massive leap forward for online education.

GetSmarter Managing Director, Sam Paddock said, "We are thrilled to obtain institutional accreditation with Services SETA, particularly as we are the first fully-online training company to obtain such accreditation. This recognition speaks volumes for how far online education has come and we are glad to be pioneering accreditation in this space."

Online education still faces many challenges – limited access to technology and low internet skills are considerable obstacles in South Africa – but the potential already exists, as Paddock has seen. With the right educational approach, and with a solid support structure, online education could solve many of the problems that face education today: issues like lack of access to materials, lack of skilled teachers and children leaving schools to look after their families. For working people, it provides an affordable way to gain valuable skills and qualifications – and therefore better jobs.

Gates is optimistic that the internet can dramatically improve global education, as it has already affected so many other aspects of our lives. “A lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things.”

About the author: Anna Malczyk is the communications executive at GetSmarter (www.getsmarter.co.za), a specialist online training firm. For further information about GetSmarter’s set of online courses, contact Deborah on 021 685 4775 or Deborah@getsmarter.co.za

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