Online Enterprises Gain Foothold as Path to a College Degree
By TAMAR LEWIN
Harvard and Ohio State are not going to disappear any time soon. But a host of new online enterprises are making earning a college degree cheaper, faster and flexible enough to take work experience into account. As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.
Western Governors University: Weekly Prompts From a Mentor (August 25, 2011)
Straighterline: A Way to Speed the Pace (August 25, 2011)
University of the People: Open Courses, Nearly Free (August 25, 2011)
Learning Counts: Receiving Credit for Job Experience (August 25, 2011)
A Short-Lived Test, Even With Coaching (August 25, 2011)
Given that high school and college are no longer a ticket to middle-class life, does our society devote too much time and money to education?
Ryan Yoder, 35, a computer programmer who had completed 72 credits at the University of South Florida years ago, signed up with an outfit called Straighterline, paid $216 to take two courses in accounting and one in business communication, and a month later transferred the credits to Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, which awarded him a bachelor’s degree in June.
Alan Long, 34, a paramedic and fire captain, used another new institution, Learning Counts, to create a portfolio that included his certifications and a narrative spelling out what he had learned on the job. He paid $750 to Learning Counts and came out with seven credits at Ottawa University in Kansas, where he would have had to spend $2,800 to earn them in a traditional classroom.
And Erin Larson, who has four children and works full time at a television station but wanted to become a teacher, paid $3,000 per semester to Western Governors University for as many classes as she could handle — plus a weekly call from a mentor. “Anywhere else, it would have cost three arms and legs,” said Ms. Larson, 40, “and as a certified procrastinator, I found that weekly call very useful.”
For those who have the time and money, the four-year residential campus still offers what is widely considered the best educational experience. Critics worry that the online courses are less rigorous and more vulnerable to cheating, and that their emphasis on providing credentials for specific jobs could undermine the traditional mission of encouraging critical thinking.
But most experts agree that given the exploding technologies, cuts to university budgets and the expanding universe of people expected to earn postsecondary degrees, there is no end in sight for newfangled programs preparing students for careers in high-demand areas like business, computer science, health care and criminal justice.
Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would “change dramatically” as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.
“Instead of a full entree of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Mr. Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”
While many students at the nascent institutions offer glowing reviews and success stories, a recent study by Teachers College at Columbia University that tracked 51,000 community college students in Washington State for five years found that those with the most online course credits were the least likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. And traditional professors like Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University, see places like Western Governors University as anti-intellectual, noting that its advertising emphasizes how fast students can earn credits, not how much they will learn.
“Taking a course online, by yourself, is not the same as being in a classroom with a professor who can respond to you, present different viewpoints and push you to work a problem,” Professor Neem said. “There’s lots of porn and religion online, but people still have relationships and get married, and go to church and talk to a minister.”
But Anya Kamenetz, whose 2010 book, “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education,” tracks the new wave of Web-based education efforts, says the new institutions will only continue to improve and expand. “For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one,” she said. “For others, it will mean getting some kind of education, instead of nothing.”
Nationwide, almost three quarters of college students attend public institutions, and commercial career colleges like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan now make up almost as much of the remaining quarter as traditional nonprofit private universities like Stanford or Duke. Many of the emerging models are far cheaper than the publicly traded career colleges, some of which have come under scrutiny over the last year for leaving students with mountains of debt and credentials of little value.
Most are still new and very small, making it hard to locate students who have used them, other than those referred by the businesses themselves.
And it is too soon to know which will take off, or what might come along to overtake them.
“I’m just waiting for a Wikipedia University, with high-quality, online, open-source courses provided by a variety of different people,” said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “Or the moment when someone like Bill Gates creates Superstar University, finding the best professors for the 200 courses that a good liberal arts college offers, and paying them $25,000 each to put their classes online.”
Reprinted from The New York Times, education, of Thursday, August 25, 2011.