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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Degrees of debt: Online college courses being taken more seriously

College courses have been offered online for more than a decade, but the past two years have seen the concept gain more attention as major colleges have signed up, creating paid and free coursework that some say could upend higher education.

Two general approaches are being used, both dependent upon the spread of fast Internet connections and people’s increasing comfort with online interaction: Paid courses, and free or low-cost courses.

The original online education model was an Internet version of well-established “distance learning” by private institutions using the mail.

The University of Phoenix, which started in 1970 as an after-hours school for working adults and launched its online program in 1989, is the best-known and biggest of for-profit schools. It claims more than 400,000 students each year and offers associate, bachelor’s, master’s and even doctoral degrees, taught by 1,500 full-time and 20,000 part-time faculty using a standardized curriculum.

A number of other online-only, for-profit colleges have cropped up since, most with open enrollment policies – that is, anybody with a high school or GED diploma can get in.

The for-profit model has been accused of over- promising and under- delivering to students, and being more interested in gathering guaranteed federal student loans than in educating students. A two-year U.S. Senate investigation released July 30 said many for-profit colleges charge too much and don’t help students succeed in school or out in the workforce.

Traditional colleges, which are usually nonprofit, have been slower to enter the online game but are ramping up, arguing that the connection with a real-world campus provides better education, not to mention a more prestigious-sounding degree. Many have begun to offer online classes to existing students – something that Daniel Webster College in Nashua plans to start this fall – while others are rolling out online courses as a separate entity, the route taken by Southern New Hampshire University.

“What was an innovation is now just part of how institutions operate,” said Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, the group that accredits colleges in the region. The commission is part of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

In particular, she said, courses that combine in-class and online work are becoming routine.

“There are so many ‘blended’ courses that assuming things are either face-to-face or online is not really just the case. There’s a lot in the middle,” she said.

Free or low-cost courses

This new model is covered by the inelegant term Massive Open Online Courses or MOOC, which was coined in 2008 but only became well-known in 2011, when a free Stanford University artificial- intelligence course drew an eye-popping 160,000 students.

Prior to that, the best-known example was MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which made videos of lectures available for free online, but provided little other material or student support, and Carnegie Mellon’s venerable Open Learning Initiative, which is relatively specialized.

The appeal of the Stanford course led its professor to found a company called Udacity to develop such classes, followed by Coursera, founded by other Stanford professors. Both of those are for-profit companies, funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists; part of their job is figuring out how to make money without charging students; one idea is only to charge for the degree, meaning you can get a free education, but you have to pay up if you want official recognition.

Since then, a number of other major universities have jumped onboard, notably a dozen well-known institutions who are becoming part of Coursera.

This spring, MIT, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley announced something called edX, which is a nonprofit version of the examples above.

All of these will offer courses overseen by school faculty from prestigious schools, with various amounts of online assistance by grad students or other assistants, and scheduled online tests that can be graded by software.

For the time being, however, none will offer any kind of credit toward a degree or a certificate that carries weight with employers; this is the big hurdle.

“Whether employers take serious this idea of a certificate – in the past, that’s been a really tough sell,” said Jeffrey Young, senior editor for Technology for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication that covers colleges. “It seems like a big, cultural change will have to take place by employers.”

Still, said Young, the mere fact that such big-name schools are racing into the field shows that its time may have come.

“When Harvard invests $30 million, it seems to suggest that they believe education is changing and they need to get with the program,” he said. “What we know as undergraduate education may be changing.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or Follow him on Twitter at @GraniteGeek.