School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Elites Enter the Online Arena

Much has been written about the explosion of online learning in higher education. In Elite Colleges Transform Online Higher Education, A.P. writer Terence Chea examines potential tipping points of this phenomenon.

While online learning has been around for a while, the recent entry of elite universities into the digital learning arena – with an outreach to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide – has elevated the conversation. With top-name universities now offering many courses online for free, we may be witnessing a permanent realignment of the higher education universe.

This past spring, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering free, online courses for the first time. According to Chea, massive open online courses – MOOCs – may be the biggest game changer yet in digital learning. Advocates claim these courses lower costs and expand access to higher education, all at a time when higher ed costs are soaring to the point of fueling student protests.

Chea and others report that last month “a dozen major research universities” announced they would offer online courses through the platform known as Coursera (joining Stanford, Princeton and the universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania). Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley have already signed on with another online learning portal – edX. Chea reports that over 120 universities have expressed an interest in joining this consortium. Most universities offering these courses do not extend course credit with them, only certificates of completion (with a few exceptions, such as the University of Washington). So far that hasn’t mattered, as demand for these courses continues to soar.

So what makes these courses so attractive? First, the technology is better. It’s more interactive, and the curriculum is higher quality, according to the students who take them. Universities also claim the courses are as rigorous as the brick-and-mortar versions. Second, the virtual learning community greatly enhances learning. With access to thousands of other students at once, students can rely on more than just the professor and her teaching assistant to work through problems or get questions answered. There’s an entire (albeit virtual) community of engaged learners. Third, it speeds up the process – students can take more classes online and work through credit requirements more quickly (and on a time schedule of their choosing).

And the downsides? Cheating (there’s a lot of it), and lack of a personal connection. Plus some courses, particularly liberal arts or science classes with labs, simply aren’t well-suited for online learning.

Then there’s the overriding concern about wholesale extinction. Specifically, some fear universities (and their professors) will suffer the same fate as many newspapers did (bankruptcy) at the onset of the digital media age, because if you can get your content for free online, why should you pay the high price tag normally associated with elite schools?

My take: Elite universities aren’t going away anytime soon. Here’s what to watch – if employers are willing to hire students who complete certain courses (e.g., technical) without earning the traditional two or four-year degree, get ready for a complete paradigm shift. When employers focus less on traditional degrees earned, and more on content mastery as demonstrated by course completion, then you’ll know online learning has really arrived. Chea reports that this may already be happening in the tech industry, where some companies are asking online learning providers for “introductions” to students who successfully completed their online courses. Coursera is even considering this development as a possible revenue generator by charging students for certificates and employers for identifying top students.

Beth T. Sigall

August 13, 2012

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