"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Alternative to High-Cost College Education

In an excellent article in Monday’s (1.23.12) Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/online-course-startups-offer-virtually-free-college/2012/01/09/gIQAEJ6VGQ_story.html  Jon Marcus relates the rise of online free college courses. 

An emerging group of entrepreneurs with influential backing is seeking to lower the cost of higher education from as much as tens of thousands of dollars a year to nearly nothing.

These new arrivals are harnessing the Internet to offer online courses, which isn’t new. But their classes are free, or almost free. Most traditional universities have refused to award academic credit for such online studies.

Now the start-ups are discovering a way around that monopoly, by inventing credentials that “graduates” can take directly to employers instead of university degrees [italics mine].

I have argued on this blog for significant reform in higher public education to provide students with a practical, employment-based curriculum, one complemented by courses necessary for an enlightened citizenry – e.g. history, economics, international finance,  and political philosophy.  I have suggested that this reform be effected by: a) increasing vocational education often with the participation and support of industry; b) realigning the curriculum to match the marketplace, eliminating certain more esoteric liberal arts courses which private universities can offer, and focusing on IT and computer science, engineering, business, and technology; c) instituting rigorous entrance requirements for all levels of the educational system – that is, not all students have to attend the premier state four-year colleges, and those who do should be of the highest caliber.

This free online innovation is another way to reform education – to reduce the unrealistically high costs and student debt burdens, and to directly link students to employers with no unnecessary intermediary – the university.  An employer in silicon valley may not need learning in the wide array of academic disciplines available at public universities today, but only certain specialized ones.  A student, through an online course which has been accredited, can send his/her application directly to an employer as the first step in an interview and hiring process. 

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is running a $2 million competition to design digital “badges” that can be used instead of university degrees to prove a job candidate’s experience and knowledge to employers. P2PU and Saylor [online education firms] are experimenting with such badges for students to show they have completed courses.

As importantly, the subject matter for these online courses are of top quality:

The content these providers supply comes from top universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Tufts University and the University of Michigan. Those are among about 250 institutions worldwide that have put a collective 15,000 courses online in what has become known as the open-courseware movement.

This spring, MIT will begin offering certificates of completion to anyone who successfully finishes courses the university makes available free online. There will be a small fee for certificates in this project, known as MITx.

The online students are by no means being shortchanged.  They are receiving the same content and level of education as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Perhaps most tellingly, private companies have shown a significant interest in these online courses:

Meanwhile, some businesses that offer tuition reimbursement to employees are becoming interested in the free- and low-cost education providers. CompuCom, a Dallas information technology company with 5,000 employees, has begun to work with StraighterLine [one of the online companies cited in the article].

The Web environment makes complementing these courses easy:

“Libraries are free, too,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You can roam around, read books and study. But hardly anyone would say that spending time in the library is a good preparation to work in any economy, much less this one.”

In other words, why spend four slow-paced, often inefficient, and expensive years when you can tailor-make your education with free online study complemented by the vast storehouse of knowledge on the Internet.

“The Pollyanna version of college is that you’re learning and discussing things with your professors,” Arthur [student at an online course offeror] said. “The reality is that you have 450 kids in an auditorium listening to a teaching assistant.”

Obviously this online route is not for everyone.  Students who can afford a traditional post-secondary education, and who prefer a more social and diverse learning environment, should be able to attend one.  These students can choose among a wide array of opportunities – premier private schools, top public universities, and the many two-year, community, and vocational institutions in every state.

Online education is, however, the wave of the future.  Social networking is in its infancy. Within fifty years or less the interface between users will become indistinguishable from reality, and a true, believable, virtual environment will be the norm.  In the farther but still not too distant future there will be a complete computer-brain interface, and we all will be able to access all information in milliseconds, create our own virtual social world, and travel through history and across continents effortlessly.

In other words, the worlds of education, social networking, IT science, and competitive business will produce completely new educational paradigms. 

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