Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Web Secret #254: Yes, Virginia There Is an Online Course

In a February editorial, "The Trouble With Online College," the New York Times moved to discredit online higher education. This prompted a flurry of letters to the editor, arguing the pros and cons of online education.

Not one of the letter writers pointed out this very simple fact: We may not have a choice. It may soon be the way many, and ultimately most students get a higher education.

Anyone who currently has a child in college, or faces the prospect of sending one to university, knows that the value proposition for higher education is becoming unsustainable. It now costs in excess of $50,000 or more per year to attend a private institution, and a not too shabby $20,000 a year to go to a public school. Walk around any private college and ask any student. They will confirm that already, the student population is comprised of the very affluent who can pay the ticket, the very poor who qualify for need based grants, and the gifted who qualify for merit or athletic scholarships. The middle class - not there.

Soon, public institutions will also become unaffordable. And as for graduate school, the issues are the same. As an example, many experts believe that unless you are accepted into a top tier institution, don't bother getting a law degree.

Already, demographic studies show that the majority of millenials move back home after college, often for a prolonged span of time. The immense debt they carry precludes living on their own, even with roommates.

So, how are the growing hordes of middle class students who don't have the money or the talent to pay for school, going to get an education?

Online, of course.

And we need not necessarily feel sorry for them. Given the choice, most would opt to watch famed Harvard Professor Michael Sandel deliver his thrilling course on "Justice," rather than listen to a bored junior professor listlessly drone on in a conventional classroom.

Peter Norvig, a prominent professor at Stanford University, teaches a famous online course, available to anyone, on "Artificial Intelligence." Peter didn't just make a video of the course he was used to giving in class. Instead, he completely reinvented it, breaking it down into 2-6 minute segments, followed by a question that allowed participants to check if they actually understood the concept that had just been taught.

The student of the future may have the option to get educated by the best of the best. Sure they will miss out on the college experience we were fortunate to receive, but all is not ivy and camaraderie. There is also hazing, bullying, and drunken parties.

It may not be a bad thing to miss out on that.

And it may be inevitable.

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