Online learning requires broadband access

Move over, little red schoolhouse. Online learning is staking its claim in education. More than 4.6 million American students took at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, according to the Sloan Consortium.

The allure of e-learning isn't hard to understand. It offers flexibility, cost-savings and the chance to earn degrees without leaving the comfort of home.

This flexibility is crucial because many of today's students are non-traditional — from working single parents to home-schooled kids to mid-life career changers.

The very nature of online learning allows participants to manage their studies in a way that fits their needs. Students can pursue requirements at a pace that matches their lifestyles, and can organize assignments and online lectures according to demands of their schedules.

Particularly for students in rural areas, online learning gives students access to databases, academic experts, and unique course offerings that may not be available in their areas.

In this way, online education is a great equalizer. No longer solely for those with the time, money and flexibility to move to a college campus and pursue degrees in lecture halls, education becomes available to nearly anyone willing to devote the time and energy to pursue it.

Moreover, the benefits of online learning apply to all education levels, traditional and non-traditional. With computers now standard in classrooms, students from kindergarten to seniors in high school and beyond are using the Internet to research, and communicate with teachers and more. Likewise, non-degree seeking students can use online learning to stay current in their field or to maintain professional and education certifications.

The e-learning trend is established. But how do we sustain it as the opportunity for unfettered access to education that it is?

In a word: broadband.

It is an unfortunate irony that many of the rural Kentucky communities that could most benefit from online education lack the Internet access to achieve it. By expanding wireless broadband availability to more rural areas, we can present more Kentucky residents with online education opportunities. We can also ensure that those pursuing online learning have the best new technologies at their disposal.

Improved and expanded broadband access is touted as a goal of politicians on both the national and state levels. But the private sector also offers opportunities for expansion, in line with the political goals. T-Mobile and AT&T, for example, currently have proposed a plan to merge. If approved, the merger will allow the combined company to extend its 4G Long-Term Evolution system — the most advanced network type available — to areas that currently do not have access.

An expansion of that magnitude could be significant for Kentucky's educational institutions, both traditional and online.

Through the support of expanded broadband access, online learning can serve our nation's students for years to come. And Kentucky will be all the better for it.