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.

Photo Illustration by Staff
The Internet has caused sudden shifts in other industries, from the way people read news to the way they buy music or plan travel. Might higher education be nearing such a jolt?

In many ways, education hasn’t changed much since students sat at the feet of Socrates more than two millenniums ago. Learners still gather each autumn at colleges to listen to and be questioned by professors.

But the Internet has caused sudden shifts in other industries, from the way people read news to the way they buy music or plan travel. Might higher education be nearing such a jolt?

Aside from the massive dent put in their endowments by Wall Street’s woes, colleges and universities mostly have been conducting business as usual. Costs have soared compared with general inflation, but students still flock to classes.

Many have theorized that the Internet could give education a rude shock. Recently, an opinion piece by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who once served as an Internet organizer for presidential candidate Howard Dean, put the possibility in dramatic terms.

“Students starting school this year may be part of the last generation for which ‘going to college’ means packing up, getting a dorm room, and listening to tenured professors,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering. Colleges, like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet.”

She’s not the first to see newspapers moving from print to online and wonder whether something similar could happen to colleges. Online newspaper readers tend to seek out individual stories, not what papers as a whole have to say. Might finding the right class online become more important than which institution was offering it? What happens if colleges or even specialized online-only education companies provide essentially the same Economics 101 course? Does geography cease to matter and do low-cost providers win out?

Some think it could happen, perhaps sooner than expected. “Three years ago nobody thought the newspaper industry was going to collapse,” says Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent education think tank in Washington, D.C.

Today, a college education is more than twice as expensive as it was in the early 1990s, even after adjusting for inflation.

“It’s getting worse all the time. There’s no end in sight,” Mr. Carey says.

Colleges “have set the bar pretty low for competitors” through a lack of competition, he says. At the same time, many potential students are being underserved. “We need more institutions that are good at serving working students, immigrant students, low-income students, students who are basically going to college because they want to get a credential and have a career,” he says.

Carey points to the fledgling company, 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.

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 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.

Online education is continually improving, he says. “It’s better now than it was 10 years ago.”

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 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, 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.”

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