I was perplexed by the conclusions Gregory Ferenstein drew in this Techcrunch piece about how 72% of professors who teach online courses don’t think students deserve credit for those courses. Gregory says that this shows what an uphill fight online courses will have in establishing and gaining credibility.
I couldn’t disagree more. Active professors independent of whether they teach online courses or not are the least unbiased of people to comment on the potency and future of online learning. This is because the answer to the question – “Who has the most to lose if online courses become mainstream and their degrees get on par with existing universities and colleges?” is EXISTING ACTIVE PROFESSORS. I would not take their opinion on this topic seriously at all. It’s a bit like asking newspaper journalists in 2000 what they thought of this whole internet thing and being told “Naah, nothing will replace the crisp fresh morning local paper.”
As much fun, educational and life-changing as the college and university experience is and can be, higher education in the US is a huge clusterfuck now. Student debt on college education is at dangerous levels and is following the subprime script of the 2000’s. While there is correlation between higher incomes and those who have gone to college versus those who only finished high school, the value does not exist for everyone who shells out a whole bunch of money for their college experience. About 48% of employed college graduates are in jobs that do not need a college degree already.
It is against this backdrop that the future of online learning and degrees should be viewed. Yes it is very likely that the lack of a classroom face-to-face environment would mean that the quality of online learning will never match the depth of class at a university. But this does not mean online learning will stay irrelevant or even less relevant. Online courses will always be cheaper, will be quicker and once the testing and accreditation pieces are solved, they will be a better value. There are several complex topics in life, science, math, languages, arts and the humanities that can be taught effectively using video lectures, timed quizzes and discussion forums. Anyone who argues against this is choosing to bet against humanity’s constant quest for increased comfort and value and the natural progression of capitalism.
Universities in California and Wisconsin have already identified a pool of online courses they recognize for credits. The Khan academy is a highly valued model for education and Coursera is growing at an exponential rate and the thousands of tenured professors and lecturers are not going to be able to wish this revolution away. More and more corporations and companies are going to value students who graduate sooner and who possess a skill-set relevant in the world of that day. They are not going to bother as much about where the degree is from as they have clear visibility in to the online coursework.
I am particularly bullish on the future of online learning and coursework because of my personal experiences with them. In the last year I have completed courses at MIT Hacker lab, NY TIMES writing school and Coursera. I have enjoyed each of these and learnt a lot in topics that I did not know much about going in. The writing course cost me a few hundred dollars but the Coursera course and the MIT course were both free. Would I have learnt more if I had taken these courses over a semester at a community college or a public or private university? Yes. But I learnt enough, was tested adequately and worked on both individual and team projects that I feel like I gained 70-80% of the value while continuing with my day job and leading a normal life. These are real tangible skills I have learned and skills that employers can measure easily when they talk to me for 5-10 minutes.
What Coursera is doing in particular is impressive. They are offering video lectures from lecturers in established universities and testing students on the material over 6-10 quizzes and two-four projects. The lectures are extremely useful in providing structure and flow to the material while the quizzes and projects kept me honest, competitive and accountable. I will go back to Coursera. Many times.
Attending universities with history, social brand value/reputation will still have value in signalling to society that you were diligent and in many ways normal. But I am very confident that those who complete online learning and get degrees from sites and online courses will be able to signal soon to society that they invested in themselves too, for a less riskier and smaller investment of time and money.
So when someone tells you that the education model will last longer than you and that the online learning marketplace is useless, take it with a grain of salt. History, technology and capitalism are all stacked against that.