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College education faces online competition

Call it the rule of threes. Whenever he sees a story three times from three different angles, my futurist husband calls the subject a trend. Recently, even I, the grounded in today pragmatist, had to admit that there's something is going on when we read, watched and listened to an alternative to the college model we grew up with.

What's going on is a phenomenon in higher education known as MOOC - Mass Open Online Course. Defined by wikipedia as an "online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In essence, college classes that never close because they are full and that are available anywhere in the world with internet access.

American higher education is in flux. The American way of financing education is a market based approach mixing public and private funding. American institutional costs have risen faster than housing and medical care. (See chart). The Economist Magazine reported in its March 28th issue that "tuition fees have nearly doubled, in real terms, in 20 years. Student debt, at nearly $1.2 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt and car loans."

ivy walls and ivory towersStudent debt may be the one issue that moves students from on-campus classes to sitting at home in front of a computer. While costs go up, job prospects go down. According to senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Stuart Butler, author of "Tottering Ivory Towers" in the Autumn 2014 issue of The American Interest, "more than half of America's graduates cannot find full-time work in their primary field of study."

Butler compares the effect of online education to the earlier days of technological tumult. Industry changers tend to be either ignored or pooh-poohed in their early stages. From the transistor radio to the effects of a mass produced individual computer to the Internet's effect on the publishing industry, change that comes from just outside the peripheral vision is disruptive and often fatal to those businesses in the path of change.

He recounts the effect Sony's mass produced battery radio on the radio industry. Sony didn't go after the existing market of pricey cabinet style radio powered by vacuum tubes. Sony focused on an unserved market that didn't much care about sound quality-teenagers. They took to the cheap transistor radio, creating a market for a new kind of music their parents hated - rock 'n roll. Sony continued to improve the quality of the product to the point that its sound quality equaled that of its expensive competitors. And when the competition is just as good and cheaper, that's where consumers go.

MOOCs are in very early days. According to Wikipedia, "the term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08). CCK08, which was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, consisted of 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba, as well as over 2200 online students from the general public who paid nothing."

Public universities and private for profit groups are jumping in and offering classes online. Right now, American educators are relying on a wall called Accreditation to keep out interlopers. If a class cannot be accredited, then its value to a student trying to earn an a degree with credit hours is minimal. Why, higher education asks, take a class if there is no credit awarded?

Stuart Butler has little patience with accreditation. "Sweeping change in higher education is also being held back, at least temporarily, by regulation. The biggest impediment is accreditation. Portrayed as upholding quality standards, today the accreditation of colleges and universities is actually little more than a protectionist barrier benefiting existing institutions. Federal student loans are only available to accredited institutions. That means many new education ventures feel they must apply for accreditation, which can be an expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain process." ("Tottering Ivory Towers" The American Interest Magazine, Autumn 2014, page 35.)

The answer to those who think that accreditation will work to keep MOOCs from sucking out students from college campuses lies in the words "massive" and "open". A world of learners with no interest in accumulating credit hours mirror the teenagers of Sony's transistor market. Employers looking to improve worker proficiency could be a driving force. Taking classes to improve one's skills on the job (and hopefully one's pay) is already a motivator for student learning. Consider computer proficiency classes that offer a certificate of completion. The transcript is the certificate.

American higher education, especially its stellar research capability, is the model for the world. According to The Economist, 19 of 20 universities in the world that produced the most highly cited research papers were American.

But the sage on the stage model of teaching is swiftly becoming the horse and buggy of education. Being one of hundreds sitting in an amphitheater listening and taking notes is no draw to students who come from high schools carrying their tablets and interactive devices.

An end to the pyramid of large groups of students paying premium prices for their first two years of school to enable those who survive to work in small groups during their last two years is on the horizon.

Change is about to climb the walls of America's ivory towers.

For more on MOOCs and the changing college landscape, click "More" below to view a discussion of his "The End of College" by Kevin Carey and a panelist of education experts.

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