Are Online Universities the Wave of the Future?

“Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of healthcare? Such totally uncontrollable expenditures…mean that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.”

Peter F. Drucker, as quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education


In a recent column in the Globe Margaret Wente asks how would you like to take the best courses from the best professors at the best universities in the world – basically for free? How would you like to interact online with fellow students, have your online questions answered within minutes and take quizzes for real marks?

Is there a revolution in Universities in Canada and elsewhere?  University of Toronto joined Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and a dozen other major universities offering free online courses to anyone anywhere in the world with a computer. They are partners in Coursera an online venture launched a year ago by two Stanford University computer scientists.  No entrance exams or prerequisites required. No $40,000 tuition, either. Harvard and MIT are pouring millions into edX, a joint venture that will offer their own online courses.  Online education has been around in various forms for a while, but the response to these courses has been massive.

Thirty percent of American college students are now taking at least one class entirely online, according to Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a market research and consulting firm located in Tampa, Fla. The Marketdata study predicts the online trend is going to continue and projects that by 2015 the amount of college students taking online courses will jump to 37 percent. In 2010, over 6.2 million students were enrolled in online courses, according to a Sloan Consortium study, and this is an 11 percent increase from 2009. Just in the last eight years, online enrollment has increased a whopping 385 percent and this trend shows no signs of stopping. Source

“Essentially, this is the Internet happening to education,” says George Siemens, a Canadian researcher at Athabasca University who helped create the very first mass-education online course in 2008. And it’s happening as a generation of students has grown up online. Mr. Siemens thinks the biggest initial impact will be on students in China, India and other parts of the world with limited access to good-quality higher education. Mass online courses could bring higher education to hundreds of millions of people. There will also be plenty of appeal for older learners, curious retirees and people who don’t need or want the kind of immersive university experience that’s so important when you’re 20.

The new wave of innovation is being driven by the soaring cost of higher education in the United States, where tuition fees are five to 10 times higher than in Canada. A key advantage for on-line universities is their classes never close, there is always a space and they can be taken anywhere at virtually any time. They are highly adaptable. Their non-tenured instructors are less prone as to advance a social justice agenda and actually teach the course they were hired to teach…maybe even actually helping students find a real job. ( Also the focus is on teaching and not spending the majority of their time doing research)

For the bricks-and-mortar presidents, administrators and department deans they should be afraid, very afraid of the digital future. Having said that, they have some time…but not unlimited time to devise a strategy to fight back. One important weapon in their arsenal is their well-established brand degree carries great weight. The same is true for other major universities.

But even in Canada, public universities are being brutally squeezed. Mass online courses – especially for standard introductory material – could offer big efficiencies and who knows bring down the cost of running a university. Also tuition fees keep rising and when do students say enough is enough as we have seen in Quebec which has the lowest tuition fees in Canada.

Mass online education faces plenty of hurdles. Among the biggest is the value of these courses in the marketplace. But online entrepreneurs will eventually figure it out. They’re already figuring out ways to connect students with job opportunities as well as figuring out how to monitor and administer real exams.

Lots of people, especially in the education establishment, argue that there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction and collaboration. But in the world of online communities and the upcoming generation i.e. the Millenials who seem to be doing everything online, will have an expectation that they should be able to take courses online, 24-7 at their convenience and not the university.

There is no question, in the next 20 years, new technologies won’t simply deliver old material electronically but will transform the educational system as we know it. For professors and school administrations in denial, they may want to talk to people in the publishing business and many other industries taken over by online communications.

We’re in the very early days of a vast experiment. No one knows how all of this will play out. But universities and colleges are going to see substantial changes in the next few decades. The smart ones will see the opportunities and become early adopters in online teaching and those who are smug and think it won`t happen, will be left behind wondering what happened.

Any thought on this? Let me know what you think.


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