Much of the buzz around the educational benefits of Internet technology has focused on the potential for the classroom -- or perhaps, if we add to that, the boom in mobile technology, the potential to bridge the classroom and the home.
But the Internet is doing far more than opening doors for K-12 and higher education students. It's also a huge boon for "lifelong learners," those students -- students of any age -- that are pursuing educational opportunities in informal settings and outside degree programs.
The idea of "lifelong learning" isn't a new one. The idea of self-motivated, self-directed learning became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, although "continuing education" and "adult education" have roots that go much farther back in history.
It may be cliché to say that it's possible to learn anything you want online. Indeed, information on almost any topic is accessible, if not abundant. But even though lifelong learning is informal, it needn't be unstructured, and when I say that the Internet is providing great potential for lifelong learning, I don't mean simply "You can Google whatever you want."
A number of companies and organizations are actively addressing this space, providing not just opportunities for people to learn, but opportunities for people to teach (and to make money doing so). That's a key piece of lifelong learning -- the learning is self-funded. These are people who want to learn something and are willing to pay to do so.
Seattle-based startup TeachStreet may be the perfect example of this. The company provides a marketplace, of sorts, where learners can find classes and teachers can find students. There are just under a half million classes listed on the site, offered by around 100,000 teachers and schools. Many are local, but more of these offerings are available online as well.
That local element is important, as indeed, these are learning opportunities that certainly pre-date the Internet. Piano lessons. Dance lessons. French lessons. Fly fishing lessons. Before the Internet, these instructors could be found in the Yellow Pages, in the classified section of the newspaper, on flyers tacked to community center bulletin boards.
Until the Internet, many of these instructors haven't had a way to put their content online (instructional videos posted to YouTube, for example), to promote their content online, and as is becoming increasingly important, to "go viral." While word-of-mouth has always been an important element in learning about good guitar teachers or amazing skydiving classes, for example, the Internet truly compounds how word-of-mouth works.
It also allows learners to declare their interest in a particular topic, with things like TeachStreet's "Teacher Request" feature that lets someone state their interest and their inquiry for someone to teach them.
But it isn't simply these sorts of recreational educational opportunities that the Internet now affords. Thanks to the open courseware movement, many universities -- most famously MIT -- are making their core academic content -- syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets and solutions, exams, reading lists, and video lectures -- available for anyone to download. Yes, this content is divorced from instruction and from a degree. But it's there nonetheless.
And this, more than anything, may portend one of the most disruptive elements of technology and education. As more content, more communities, and more marketplaces spring up online to support these alt-edu endeavors, we may begin to rethink what it means to spend so much time focusing on the classroom when in fact, learning is lifelong.