The Future of Online University Education

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I just noticed that perhaps my most “Liked” post is one comparing how rising cost of college tuition crushes the housing bubble and even the rising cost of healthcare:

The current rate of tuition hikes is clearly unsustainable, and I believe that within the next 10 years there will be a big disruption. The traditional 4-year college experience won’t go away, but what if you could also earn credits with an online class taught by an Ivy League professor and graded to equivalent standards of mastery? What if it cost less than community college?

Below is a recent TED talk by Daphne Koller about her startup Coursera which offers university courses online. Now, there is already lots of free lecture material online. That’s easy.

What made this talk different is that they are tackling the hard problems of making a affordable, accessible education both effective and legitimately recognized with grades, credit-hours, and eventually degrees. This means scaling the little things that usually work best in small groups – encouraging discussions, grading homework and exams, answering questions and providing feedback. How do you manage this in a class of 100,000 students? The ideas of peer-grading and peer-teaching are very intriguing. Also, they point out that technology can make eduction more personalized to the student as compared to traditional lecture-based classes.

Embedded video after the jump.

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  1. Honestly, is there really a reason why people need to go to a real classroom for a lecture? Why can’t we watch it online at home and then do our homework in a class setting elsewhere? That would save money big time. Get the best teachers and put them in a video ! Sort of like how people learn much more (and do better) watching online training videos such as those at, adobe Tv, etc. I always do much better learning from the best in online videos.

  2. There was actually a really interesting story on NPR’s Planet money about college tuition and it turns out that the “average” cost students pay is about where it was years ago (adjusted for inflation) but the “sticker price” has gone up. Here’s a link to the article. The program was fascinating.

  3. LargeTalons says

    I appreciate the subject of this post, but here is an interesting podcast which explains that the skyrocketing cost of college meme is at least partially myth. The reasons have to do with the changing methodology of how tution prices are actually reported.

  4. Kurt @ Money Counselor says

    I think you’re right–the traditional college education model is irretrievably broken. Only the upper economic class can afford college in the US today without accumulating overly burdensome debt. But innovation is alive and well, and new models are and will emerge that meet people’s and the economy’s needs. Will be exciting to see!

  5. hawks5999 says

    And don’t forget

  6. I took one of the MIT courses. For the first two weeks I thought, “Oh my God. This is going to put me out of a job.” But by the end I hated it, worse than almost any class I’ve had in a classroom. And the course was on material that I really enjoy.

    But I found the crushing mechanical implacability of the computer grueling. I’m more dedicated that most any student I know, and I still wanted to quit before it ended.

    Online education is going to make a difference, but I wonder if it’s really going to turn things upside down.

    The growth in tuition seems to stem from two causes: 1. State governments have withdrawn support from institutions in order to balance their budgets, and 2. The primary expense of institutions is the pay and (health) benefits; health costs are also growing faster than inflation.

    State appropriations can’t go below 0, so there is a cap to how much tuition growth will occur due to the shifting of cost to students. I can’t say what will happen with medical costs.

  7. I’ll definitely have to check out the NPR piece. I agree that anecdotally many of the people I know went to expensive private colleges but got widely varying amounts of scholarships that made the actual price as low as in-state tuition at times.

    Here’s a link about “How BLS Measures Price Change for College Tuition and Fees in the Consumer Price Index”:

    Another idea would be to track the average student loan balance of graduating seniors, and see how that would compare to inflation. According to this CNN article the average student loan debt was $25,000.

  8. As a teacher I’m obviously biased here, but I also feel that since this is my field I’m also a bit of an expert here. I think we need to proceed cautiously in this world of online learning. Some classes can probably be managed online, but many can’t. “The little things” like discussion, answering questions, and providing feedback are for most subject areas huge. A good teacher does far more than just present material to the masses.

    Looks like this is just another attempt to take the Walmart approach… instead of paying the real price for a product, get a cheap disposable product that isn’t as good. No wonder we continue to slip against the rest of the world. How about as a country we invest in our future instead of cutting funding from it? And at a lower education level, lets say no to diverting money to for profit online and charter schools that research says don’t work.

    We are not the only country in the world, so we should look to see how other countries deal with higher education.

  9. I am a part-time college student that takes 6 hours a semester through a regionally accredited, local public university’s online degree program. I think online learning leaves a lot to be desired. I think there are some courses that students can only understand the material when taught in person such as physics and math. Try having a student just read the book and then try to do the calculus problems and understand them…not going to happen.

    My university uses blackboard. I’m 18 hours away from receiving my degree. Blackboard is one of the largest learning management systems in use. I would think the program can host online lectures, but all of my classes have consisted of a mix of read the chapter, and participate in an online discussion board, take a quiz, a final every now and then, watch and comment on a youtube video, weekly writing assignments, and write a term paper. I have not had even one online video lecture! I had one professor use the audio/webinar function one time to give a study guide. Maybe my university is under-utilizing Blackboard’s capabilities or there some other reason why there are no lectures.

    But back to my original point…there are some classes that simply need to be taught in a traditional setting. Or what about laboratory classes? Some things need to be taught hands on such as building electronic circuits or dissecting a frog.

  10. When everybody has a Rolex, it’s just an expensive Timex…

    Please, let’s water down a college education even more. Be honest, a degree’s meaningless today and much of that is because anyone with a pulse can get one. It’s all about paying an institution. I’d guess most of us recall sitting at commencement, hearing a name and thinking, “Wait, that tool got a degree from here too? That dude can’t remember Avogadro’s Number but he sure as hell knows his dealer’s digits.” It’s right around that point it becomes abundantly clear, college is little more than a business transaction. The customers pay for 4 (or 5) years and in the end, they walk out with a little certificate from the business.

    When I’m hiring I expect the applicants will have at least a degree. In keeping with the devaluation of the degree as a mark of academic achievement I view it as little more than a rubber stamp that allows me to bother reading the rest of the resume. In the end, the degree doesn’t tell us that the applicant is smart, logical, responsible or in any way worth our time. But a degree from a physical university does tell me someone physically put in the time.

    With a real degree we know at least an applicant showed up somewhere for 2-5 years. Maybe he didn’t go to most classes. But he took the tests or handed in his papers. He spent some time involved. Maybe he even had sections taught by a TA. But the person with a degree from a real school physically put in some effort.

    As degrees become attainable online, we lose even the baseline requirement that a person physically interact with the world. No longer must they give a presentation in front of a group. They’re not forced to stay awake during a poorly constructed lecture. They needn’t pair up with an awful but cute lab partner and discover next time, select the nerd. Nope, the online person spends less time in class, interacts less with other students, needn’t uproot or radically change and overall invests less of everything to buy a diploma they want people to believe is the same diploma received by kids who attend a real school.

    The online students risk so very little. Stop and start when they want. Take classes when it’s convenient for them. Pay less. Work school around their schedule.

    I put little faith in a real degree as a mark of achievement. An online degree…no. It’s too easy to “earn” a real degree to excuse not even bothering to physically show up somewhere to get one.

  11. Well, I admit that I would still want my kids to attend a traditional 4-year college, partially for the networking and social opportunities. Even Koller admits that 1-on-1 teaching produces the best results. But many people are unable to do that due to financial, geographical, or time-related reasons.

    In that respect, I think “real” degrees are over-romanticized. I was a grad student TA for 3 years in a hard science and I’ve seen plenty of laziness and coasting and taking advantage of the fact that I have to grade on a curve. I’d love to get rid of the curve and bring back some rigid standards of mastering a subject. I think that many current college students could be outperformed by someone without the money but with a commitment to hard work. I’ve been learning myself on CodeCademy for the last few months and even though it’s far for perfected, I can see the potential.

    I also agree that unlimited student loans given out without any regards to ability to repay has been inflating tuitions. For-profit schools should be regulated more strictly in their ability to accept federal money, especially those with dubious accreditations, poor graduation rates, and poor employment stats.

  12. Scott Guirlinger says

    My masters degree was essentially paid for by my company (I got tuition reimbursement). I had a friend who believed that grad school, at least the degrees and locations that catered mostly to the part-time students already in the workforce versus the full-time students, was easier than undergrad because the professor was highly motivated to give everyone at least an A or B to keep the money coming next semester. Which makes complete sense – if I got a C, I woudn’t get reimbursed by my company and would be much more likely to stop my degree, stop taking classes, and stop paying the university. I realize this is not true everywhere, but it’s an interesting point to consider when talking about college and finances.

  13. The problem is that there are more bad teachers than good. Why not get the best and put them on video for the world to learn from? My best learning has always been in a video setting because I’m able to pause, rewind, and post questions. Plus, to further explain a topic, multimedia can be imported into the video. I attended a 4 year university (Ut-Austin) and then took courses online. For me, the online courses were far superior (and I did better) than the classroom setting. The only thing a classroom is good for is networking and building your social skills. But, you can get that from linkedin and other sites.

    I never did get my degree. Instead, I went and started my own business. I figured since I was smart enough to get a job and make good money, I didn’t need to graduate. This was a mistake on my part–I wish I did finish the degree. After I sold my business, I never had any problem finding jobs. Depends on what industry you are in, but a lot of employers these days are accepting 5-10 years of experience in place of a Phd.

    Don’t ditch online learning. I feel it is just as good as a traditional university (i’d argue it’s even better) due to the multitudes of ways you can teach a student.

  14. MOOCs have a place, but there is a great difference between training (lower level learning such as memorization and some analysis, which works with the masses such as MOOCs and large lecture auditoriums) and teaching (higher level learning, such as application, synthesis and evaluation, which simply does not work in this type of environment, whether online or face-to-face).

    The irony is that she talks as if she invented many long-standing effective teaching methods (active learning, engagement, collaboration, chunked content) which have been in place in distance higher education for decades prior to the web. Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the where/how.

    MOOCs are many things, but by design they don’t work for higher level learning. And even the schools involved in MOOCs (Standford, MIT, etc.) realize this and will not grant real credit for these courses. But they (and the materials created for them) have a place.

    As for cost of higher ed, look no further than state legislatures, which have been slashing money to schools for decades which places the burden on the students. Do “we” want broad access to public higher education and are willing to support that (which results in a more educated, more informed, more versatile, more upwardly rising, more employable, etc. society as a whole) through paying higher taxes? Or, do we want to place that on the individuals, as we are doing to a much greater extent now than 30 years ago?

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that as access to higher education broadened and increased following WWII through the ’90s that our country grew and improved in many ways.

  15. I went to a very large, public university where the professor taught in 100+ capacity lecture halls and then all you had were TAs in the classrooms. I hated it. Combine that with the fact that I couldn’t settle on a degree and after a while I just stopped going. I’m in my 30s now with a good job (Director of IT) and two kids and I’m going back to school. But not traditional college, I’m going online. I love the flexibility to work on assignments and “attend” when my schedule allows. Do I learn that much? Eh, but I didn’t learn much in those massive lecture halls either. And at this point, I’m just trying to get my piece of paper to allow for career advancement.
    Realistically, I don’t feel that the massive amount of college grads has made the population any smarter. And there are so many positions now that require a degree that didn’t in the past and it isn’t like the job has gotten any harder or more complicated. It’s become another barrier to entry.

  16. I know I’m late a day or so in responding, but I thought this post was very timely in relation to the latest project I’m working on. As a regular reader of this blog, I know Johnathan has been following and posting regarding the huge problem of exploding college education costs for some time. As an educator, it is something that has bothered me for some time too. I realize there are people who are trying to come up with better, cheaper ways to help students get their degrees on-line, but I have also come up with something I think will assist in this endeavor, the College Preparedness Program. What I intend to do is offer people a chance to see what it’s like to take a real college-level course at a fraction of the cost before enrolling as a full-time student, so they can really know if college is for them or just simply to be better prepared once they get there. The program begins this fall, and any feedback is certainly appreciated. Thanks.

  17. You’ll know this is a viable business model the day the government outlaws it or starts larding it up with crushing regulation and astronomical licensing fees and a regulatory board to decide who it will “allow” to do this.

    Because that’s what government does: It takes heaping sacks of cash from the entrenched interests in exchange for strangling their compititors in the crib.

  18. Newlyfrugal says

    What about cheating on online courses? Someone else could take the course for you and take exams for you. No thanks. I will stick with my physical degrees. I have bachelor’s, two master’s, and a law degree. When I hire employees for my law firm, I look for those with physical degrees. I have worked in law for over 20 years now and I still prefer those with degrees from a physical university. Yes, their students cheat too, but with online courses, I have personally witnessed even more cheating.

    Also to second others’ opinions: my bachelor’s and one of my master’s was in hard sciences where we studied biology, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, pharmacology, etc, all of which had labs with hands on experiments. My courses in logic, statistics, and calculus required a lot of work and time with professors/TAs. Good luck taking those courses online.

  19. A number of items to be addressed …

    – Cheating: early research shows that cheating is more likely to occur in face-to-face courses. Again, this is early stuff as this is an area for which there is a ton of evidence of cheating in face-to-face courses but not a lot yet for online/distance. But, the early studies indicate that cheating occurs slightly less in online/distance courses in both observed and self-reported studies. This may be due to the type of courses offered at a distance (higher percentage of professional and graduate level courses), internal motivation of students (those who take online/distance courses tend to be taking courses for reasons which are more important to them) and, frankly, higher security/better identity authentication in online/distance courses than face-to-face courses dues to federal law, accreditation agencies and motivation for institutions.

    – for-profit v. non-profit: Much of the courses/programs offered online are done by established, non-profit public and private schools. Just because something is offered online, it does not mean it is from a non-profit diploma mill (see the Frontline show titled “College, Inc.” and the recent U.S. Senate report for a better idea about how *some* for-profit colleges operate, for on-campus and online programs. This is where the real problems are occurring and where students are getting stuck with huge amounts of debt for degrees which employers deem of little value (and tax payers are backing loans which are defaulted on at a much higher rate than those which go to students who are enrolled at non-profit public and private schools).

    – online v. face-to-face rigor: Say you won’t hire someone with a degree that has classes (some or many) taken online? Likely, you won’t know, if it is an established school with a reputation for rigor. Standford, Harvard, North Carolina State, University of Michigan, Iowa State University are but a few examples of hundreds of schools which have offered online/distance courses and programs for decades – there is nothing on the degree or transcripts to indicate how the classes are offered. That is because the schools hold all courses and programs to the same standard of rigor. For a number of reasons, one of which is that their own faculty are their harshest critics.

    – MOOCs v. online courses: MOOCs, by their nature, cannot offer the same type of interaction, depth and rigor that a true college course can. At least not the way I have seen them offered (and I have looked at dozens). That is not to say that they couldn’t be tweaked to add some more rigorous and varied assessments, more active learning activities to increase student interaction with faculty/TAs, etc. That could be done to make these as good as some college courses. But that blows their whole business model. There are efficiencies to be adopted in higher education, but MOOCs are they are today is sacrificing too much.

  20. Newlyfrugal, I wouldn’t worry about cheating when you require students to take the exam in the classroom. All I’m saying is for students to watch lectures/courses at home and then come to class for workshops and exams. This cuts down the cost big time. Like a traditional university, you still have to “show up”

  21. local tourist says

    There is a ton of opportunity to reduce the cost of higher education by allowing it to be obtained online, it’s just silly how much online colleges charge

  22. Ditto on that NPR article.

    I grew up in a lower-middle class family, in a lower-class part of my city. Got accepted to one of the most prestigious (and expensive) colleges in the US. Tuition at the time was something like $40,000. They had full access to my family’s financial info due to FAFSA, and thus offered me about $30,000 off the “sticker price” to go there. Remember that these colleges are still in many ways run like a business; if you get accepted the admissions/financial aid office wants to give you as little money as possible without you walking away.

    I had done the “early decision” application thing and got accepted in December. It took FOUR MONTHS

  23. I hit submit on accident.. the rest of my story:

    It took FOUR MONTHS of back and forth negotiating but I eventually got them down to under $7,000.

    Once I got to the school I was shocked to find out how much other people were paying. Many of classmates were from filthy-rich families that didn’t even bother calling the admissions/fin-aid office. They just paid the $40,000 without question because they didn’t want to bother with it. A lot of people I knew didn’t even bother filling out the FAFSA. I couldn’t believe it.

    What I learned?: The price of tuition at private colleges is really just the price you pay if you’re both too rich to qualify for federal aid and too lazy to call and negotiate down the price. It’s a laziness/apathy tax on the rich. Much of the complaining about tuition increases is legitimate, but the degree to which people think the price you NEED to pay at these expensive schools is greatly inflated.

  24. What about regionally accredited non-for-profit online schools? There happen to be three of them right here in the United States, Charter Oak State College, Thomas Edison State College, and Excelsior. These schools are mainly set up as assessment schools to help adults piece together their previously obtained credits into a degree.

    Since most brick and mortar college students now take at least one online class, the stigma of an online education is dying. I consider technology to be a HUGE assess for today’s students. It’s put a lot of people from various socioeconomic background on even ground. Not every student can afford to not work a full time job while they are in school; not even the young adults fresh out of high school.

    Personally, when it comes to online-only institutions that cater specifically to adult learners, I’m all for it. Why should someone that is/and has been employed in their industry for many years, not try to take advantage of the credits they paid for and received…even if those credits didn’t result in a degree, they still are the result of previous educational endeavors and more schools should be willing to accept them for transfer into an adult-learner oriented degree program. But even STILL some universities place a huge cap on the number of credits accepted for general studies degrees. It’s insane, and unfair to those who under past circumstances weren’t able to achieve their goal of college completion.

    I am very hopeful that in the near future, that many of the students that were not retained during their formative college years will become knowledgeable about the previously mentioned adult distance education programs (Often called the “Big Three”). That way we can give our adult workforce a competitive edge when this recession deepens (and yes, I still believe we are in one!). These very unique programs aren’t super costly, and help people “get the piece of paper” to back up their experience, even if it’s not from a top tier school…It gets your resume past HR and into the hands of someone that can appreciate their skills.

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