There's a video on YouTube that considers the moral implications of cannibalism. In the video, Professor Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, no less, discusses the utilitarianism of philosopher Jeremy Bentham and weighs a legal case involving a shipwreck that led the captain to kill a young boy to try to ensure the survival of three other people. The video is part of a series of lectures by Sandel that make up a course called Justice, which in 2010 became the first course Harvard chose to make available online.

The video is nearly an hour long, yet has attracted more than seven million views. By being posted online, freely available to anyone—not just those with the resources or achievement to matriculate at Harvard–the lecture has become a signpost in a couple of different roads. The traditional highway of formal academic inquiry now has a shunpike in ordinary curiosity, and all sorts of people study online. Also, the digital zoom is modernly a place where serious contemplation can begin to take place. There has been a massive uptick of online learning among students enrolled or semi-enrolled in our educational institutions.

To address the latter: Digital and online learning suddenly represents a mainstay in higher education, with more than one-third of students at all universities taking at least one online course per semester and a growing number of campuses going completely online.

But there has long been skepticism about the efficacy of online learning. Research shows a low level of confidence on the part of many educators, such as Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, who wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that “online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

In response, a new generation of online learning tools, more responsive and flexible, hopes to address such concerns head-on, often using technology itself to fix problems that might have been engendered by sloppy technology. As digital learning tools evolve and become more attractive and accessible, they offer increasing opportunities for students who may not otherwise be able to study on a campus, and seek to assist enrolled students who struggle to succeed.

Lou Pugliese is a senior innovation fellow and managing director for the Action Lab at EdPlus, an education laboratory at Arizona State University (ASU). According to Pugliese, “The whole environment of informal education, whether it's MOOCs [Massive Online Open Courses] or whether it's access to free education online or learning a particular skill or being involved in some sort of education program, has certainly increased the awareness for access through digital.” Pugliese co-founded the online learning portal Blackboard, and said that he’s observed a dramatic shift in the way formal digital courses are being applied. Fifteen years ago, most courses were designed and directed at contained groups of undergraduates, he said, but now the majority of students are nontraditional. Today’s “typical kind of education consumer ... is a person who's got a job, [or] they're trying to earn their degree to get a job. Many of them have families and they learn in discrete units or chunks of time. They're not linear processes–start here and end here. So that behavior is very, very different.”

So online learning has responded. An immediate takeaway was that flexibility allows students to determine when it is best for them to study, and therefore advance in their course. Joel Hartman, vice president for information technologies and resources at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, wasn’t joking when he said that researchers found that students believed the online learning experience was beneficial for three reasons: convenience, convenience and convenience.

When UCF initially developed its online course offerings two decades ago, it did so with an eye to distance learning—as in, students learning remotely, from anywhere in the world, but not including those on campus. But times have changed, and in its most recent academic year, 81 percent of students at UCF took at least one online course, many to complement their in-class participation. Hartman said that while many students chose the courses in order to work around obligations like jobs or family responsibilities, two of the university’s recent student body presidents also chose an exclusively online course load in order to allow them to pursue academic work flexibly and devote time at key moments to their duties as elected student representatives.

Flexibility, in this and other environments, can be brought to even more extreme ends. Arizona State University has started a partnership project with Starbucks that allows the coffee chain’s baristas to pursue education tuition-free.

As online learning explodes and expands even into the latte line, researchers and educators have started to sharpen the tools that are unique to the digital world and might benefit a growing cadre of nontraditional students. One initiative that shows particular promise is “adaptive learning,” which makes use of data specific to each individual student to help he or she progress through a course that has been custom-tailored. Under the theory, students are placed in a suitable course depending on knowledge they demonstrate in an entrance questionnaire. Once the programs begin, areas where the student might benefit from constant interaction and low-level testing are identified, or students are advanced when they display mastery. As Pugliese said, “these programs know what you know and what you don’t know.” While many of the adaptive learning programs are still in their experimental stages, there are energetic pilots underway at ASU and UCF and early indicators point to positive outcomes. Hartman said that many students in a project comprised of a four-course math sequence were able to complete the first two courses in one semester, halving the amount of time they would have traditionally devoted to acquiring the same knowledge in an on-campus course.

Adaptive learning programs are still developing.  At ASU, one of the pilot programs is called the Global Freshman Academy, which is aimed at nurturing fundamental math skills needed for success in college. “We’re augmenting [students’] capabilities to get through their freshman career by having very sophisticated adaptive environments,” said Pugliese. The courses are augmented by a set of mentors, who step in when intervention is needed. “So, if you are in an advanced algebra class and you are going through at a separate pace through this course,” Pugliese explained, “[the course] knows where you went off-track, it knows what kind of automated feedback to give you, and it will give you only so much based on your capacity to learn that. And if there's a jumping-off point where we can't feed you back any more, you get automatically routed to a mentor.”

With technology, as potent as it now is—spell-check was your grandfather’s universe—the institutions employing it can parse if a problem is due to a student’s misunderstanding, to a lack of knowledge, or to a poorly-designed course. By either fixing the course or addressing students’ issues early, and coaxing them to identify and overcome learning’s ever-present roadblocks, online programs can, in Hartman’s view, pave a smoother surface. “Whatever it might happen to be, we can build an environment that gives us information about those things, giving us an opportunity then to guide faculty to the appropriate kinds of observations and interventions to improve success outcomes for students who might not normally have been on a successful path. The students who are likely to succeed in the end are likely to succeed unless something trips them up, and we want to make sure that nothing trips them up. It's the students who would not typically succeed who we have now an opportunity to reach out to and intervene to help them raise their performance on a successful path.” By systematically removing barriers to a student’s success—by pinpointing areas of weakness and making sure assistance is delivered—Hartman said the online programs could help students who face the highest hurdles move ahead with their education.

Adaptive learning seems a hot phrase, and, yes, the programs at UCF are often geared to students who might struggle to attain the foundational knowledge needed to pursue the fields they are interested in. But online education, of which adaptive learning is only a part, can benefit all, and is doing so today—for high-schoolers, collegians, and those beyond the Ivory Tower. Hartman is convinced of this. He sees in this the capacity to upend the way achievement is measured. He said that within adaptive learning environments, there may no longer be any need for grades–which, he said, serve only as a proxy on the degree of learning that has taken place. If a course were designed to ensure that every student who completes it has a certain set of knowledge, the proxy would no longer be necessary. If courses incorporate complete flexibility, decoupling standard-time constraints of university schedules, and if degrees are defined not by courses completed but by knowledge gathered, well . . . that sounds utopian. But utopian is what education has been at its heart since Plato, and perhaps now is the time for the structures to be reassessed once more, as they have been a thousand times since the Greeks and Romans.

“If we can overcome barriers and make courses more successful for more students,” Hartman said, “it will open the door to a wide range of opportunities and give more students who come in to the institution intending to be whatever they intend to be–a doctor, a nurse, a business professional, a scientist, an engineer–an opportunity to actually achieve that goal.” Isn’t that always the ultimate goal of education?