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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Online education is continually improving, he says. “It’s better now than it was 10 years ago.”Skip to next paragraph
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A study of 12 years of online teaching by SRI International on behalf of the US Department of Education concluded earlier this year that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
What’s more, this wasn’t true only of lower-level courses. “Online learning appeared to be an effective option for both undergraduates ... and for graduate students and professionals ... in a wide range of academic and professional studies,” the study said.
The Obama administration has talked in general terms about online education as part of a grand plan to give the US the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world by 2020. The plan, when announced next year, could include funds to develop more online course materials and make them freely available.
If other online education start-ups like Straighterline.com do appear, they won’t be looking for “18-year-olds from suburban high schools who want to go to Harvard,” Carey says. Elite schools will always offer other reasons to attend, such as making social connections. “Exclusivity never goes out of style,” he says.
Professor Teachout is reminded of the 19th century, when wealthy Americans sent their children off to Europe to absorb its cultural treasures on a so-called Grand Tour. “I can imagine the off-line, brick-and-mortar, elegant, beautiful MIT experience becoming the Grand Tour” of tomorrow, she says in an interview.
Reaction to her article has been strong and varied. Some, including her father, also a law professor, have said, “This is horrible. This is the end of the world,” she says. Those she calls “techno-Utopians” have said, “This is fantastic!”
An online learning experience for the self-motivated, organized person could be “extraordinary,” she says. And we’ve only scratched the surface. “The totally free online university that is stitched together from MIT-quality professors is going to happen very soon.”
Others remain skeptical.
“I do question whether things are really as dire as she says, and whether we’re moving toward a model where the online [courses] will almost completely displace the classroom,” says Dan Colman, associate dean and director of continuing studies at Stanford University in California. He also has founded openculture.com, a website that points visitors to free educational courses online.
“I think there could be a day when a lot ... could be done online, but I don’t think it’s in 20 years. I think it’s further out.”