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The internet has made it easier than ever to access the world’s knowledge from the comfort of your home, which opens up a new realm of possibilities called online learning. Online learning, also known as eLearning or online education, is exactly what it sounds like: education served to students by means of the internet and electronic devices.

Online learning is a great idea in principle — but does it really have potential? In this article, we analyze the online education industry with the help of the PESTLE model, which looks at the Political, Economic, Sociocultural, Technological, Legal, and Environmental factors at play in this space.

Political

Here’s the single most important Political factor affecting online learning:

Restricted internet access

In some countries — most notably China — access to the web is restricted for political reasons. This makes providing an online learning experience significantly more difficult, since the learning materials have to be hosted in the appropriate country and must meet local regulations. Some jurisdictions have more specific internet regulations, which broadly permit online education, but prohibit the distribution of certain materials such as maps (especially of disputed territories).

Economic

Here are two Economic factors at play in online learning:

Affordability of online education

Generally speaking, online education is an affordable alternative to regular education, since it doesn’t require the live presence of teaching staff. Also, it’s incredibly easy to distribute digital materials, since there is zero manufacturing or shipping cost to account for from copy to copy. As such, providers of online education can sell their learning materials at extremely low prices, while still ensuring a healthy profit for themselves!

High initial cost

Despite being a cheaper alternative to traditional education in the long term, there is a comparatively high upfront cost associated with online learning. This is because every student needs access to an electronic device in order to consume digital materials. In developed countries, this is hardly a problem, since many students already own electronic devices or could easily afford them. In developing countries, the high cost of laptops and smartphones may be prohibitive. Thankfully, the cost of electronic devices is following a sure downtrend.

Sociocultural

Here are the Sociocultural factors which impact online learning:

Lack of human interaction

Despite being an extremely efficient way to learn, online education has the downside of reducing human interaction. Students who go to a physical school every day interact face to face with fellow alumni, school staff, and various other individuals such as those they meet in their commute. Those who learn from behind an electronic display lose this human interaction, which likely plays an important role in social development and mental health.

Daycare needs for minors

Another consideration which makes it very difficult to replace traditional education for younger students is the need for physical care. With parents usually out of the house for the majority of the working day, traditional schools are an easy way to ensure their children are fed, exercised, and generally cared for. With online education, young students would be left at home for large portions of the day — an irresponsible choice for obvious reasons.

Technological

Here are some of the Technological factors affecting online learning:

Access to electronic devices

As touched on in the Economic portion of this PESTLE analysis, access to electronic devices is a major constraint in online education. Not all students have electronic devices, especially in developing countries, so they would be unable to even use the online learning materials. In some cases, electronic devices may be available, but of too poor quality (e.g. too slow) to ensure a positive learning experience.

Internet connectivity

Another major technological barrier to online education is internet connectivity. Even if students have a sufficiently powerful electronic device to consume digital educational materials, they still need to be able to access those materials via the web. In poorer areas — and equally, in rural areas with limited internet infrastructure — lack of internet access can single-handedly prevent the rollout of online education.

Legal

Here are the Legal factors which affect online learning:

Cooperation from publishers

Effective online learning requires significant cooperation from educational publishers, who often have strict rules on how their learning materials can be distributed. For example, almost all traditional textbooks cannot be shared digitally. As such, educational providers would have to use the resources of specialist, online-friendly publishers, or request special permission from traditional publishers (which is nigh on impossible).

Environmental

Here are two Environmental factors at play in online learning:

Change in energy consumption

From an environmental perspective, widespread online education definitely requires the electricity to power hundreds of millions of devices around the world for longer periods of the day. However, it’s important to remember that running physical schools uses energy too, especially in lighting and heating premises. It’s unclear what the net effect of a transition to online education would be.

Decrease in paper waste

Despite having pros and cons for energy consumption, a shift to online learning would most certainly decrease paper waste. Think of the hundreds of millions — if not billions — of school textbooks which are discarded every year. With digital learning materials, there’s nothing to get rid of at the end of the school year!

PESTLE Analysis of Online Learning: Final Thoughts

Overall, online learning has a lot of potential. It can revolutionize the way we learn by providing affordable, high-quality education to students across the globe, while possibly reducing the environmental impact of schooling.

However, online education certainly has its challenges. Politically speaking, there are internet restrictions to deal with. Financially, there’s a huge upfront cost. Socioculturally, online education decreases human interaction and raises the question of how minors will be cared for. Legally, we have to worry about educational publishers collaborating.

It’ll be interesting to see how the online learning industry tackles these many challenges, since the potential payoff for a streamlined education system is huge! In the meantime, be sure to check out our PESTLE Analysis of the higher education system in the UK.

Image by Gerd Altmann