The future of college may be virtual
Bricks-and-mortar universities should prepare for a jolt as high (and still rising) costs push students online.
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Carey points to the fledgling company Straighterline.com, which offers college courses in subjects from algebra to business statistics, English composition, and accounting. Students can take as many courses as they want for $99 per month, the company’s website says. The price includes 10 hours each month of one-on-one live support and a course adviser. Passing courses results in “real college credit” from one of several colleges affiliated with the program.Skip to next paragraph
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About 30 percent of the undergraduate credits given each year at US colleges and universities derive from only 20 or 30 introductory classes. It seems logical, then, that these could be turned into “commodities” sold at the lowest price online.
“Econ 101 for $99 is online, today. 201 and 301 will come,” Carey writes in an essay, “College for $99 a Month,” in Washington Monthly. “The Internet doesn’t treat middlemen kindly.” He describes an unemployed woman in Chicago who was able to complete four college courses for less than $200 on Straighterline.com. The same courses would have cost $2,700 at a local university.
Of course, colleges and universities have discovered online learning themselves. They already offer thousands of online courses to their registered students. According to one recent survey, nearly
4 million college students, more than 20 percent of all students, have taken at least one online course.
But colleges don’t generally offer a lower price for online courses. The reason is that the courses actually take more work to prepare and teach than similar classroom courses, says Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium in Lincoln, Neb. Members of the consortium, made up of public universities and community colleges, find that they often must provide extra resources to faculty who are preparing to teach online for the first time, such as help from a graduate assistant or a lighter teaching load, she says. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the role of the consortium.]
Online learning at these institutions“has been growing very fast,” Dr. Poley says. Students appreciate the flexibility to be able to take courses whenever they want, allowing them to keep their jobs or avoid paying baby sitters or commuting to campus as often.
What’s holding back more online courses, she says, is the lack of good broadband Internet options in some places, especially rural areas.
What may be evolving, Poley says, is a “home institution model,” in which students take introductory courses online but come on campus for work in their major field and for graduate study.
“I don’t really care whether there are students on campus or not,” she says. But “I think there will still be folks who like to be in a community with others while they are learning.” Some students enjoy athletics and other on-campus activities, she says. “I don’t think people are ready to give that up.”
Online courses, the latest form of distance learning, have had a reputation for being of lower quality than on-campus work, Carey says – something advertised in the back pages of a magazine. But that may be out of date.