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How the Internet is Changing Higher Education

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on April 11, 2013

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How the internet is changing higher education  

Revolution. Innovation. Disruption. Transformation. These are some of the words that showed up automatically to complete the phrase “online higher education” when I typed it into a search engine. Clearly, the Internet is shaking up Higher Ed, if even a search engine’s auto-complete algorithm can sense it.

Clayton Christiansen, ivy-league professor and an expert in “disruptive innovation,” explains that the online educators invest massive amounts of money each year to improve its teaching. In a 2011 interview, Christiansen shared his thoughts:

“‘That’s $200 million every year just on making their teaching better,” he repeats. ‘Do you know how much money Harvard spends every year to make its teaching better? Zero.’ The reason is that Harvard defines research as creating new knowledge, while The University of Phoenix defines it as finding new ways to provide knowledge. ‘It blows the socks off of us in their ability to teach so well,’ he says.”

A quiet revolution begins

Founded in the 70s, a higher learning institution has been primarily serving working adults through a mixture of its online platform and bricks-and-mortar campuses. In 2010, enrollment at the for-profit reached almost 600,000.

Other early adopters include the OpenCourseWare initiative, which puts class materials on the Internet, freely available to anyone. The initiative began 2002; in 2010, it published more than 2000 courses online, and reported more than 100 million visits.

A tipping point reached?

For the last 30 years, the cost of a college education has steadily risen at rates higher than inflation, while the global demand continues to increase. At the same time, studies of students learning online or through hybrid methods show equal, if not superior outcomes when compared to students in traditional settings, and online degrees don’t seem to deter many employers.

Technologycan be the clear solution—offering education on demand: anytime, anywhere, and through a variety of media. What’s unclear is how the near ubiquitous availability of the Internet will ultimately change the face of higher education…but in the past few years, institutions, innovators, and entrepreneurs have been laying the groundwork for the future.

Start-ups lead the way

There are seemingly enough burgeoning online educational startups to fill a school bus (though a venue large enough to accommodate all their students doesn’t exist).

In May 2012, a group of ivy-league schools announced the formation of edX, “a revolution in education” which will provide interactive classes to anyone in the world for free. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded edX a million-dollar grant to help boost graduation rates, and in July 2012, UC Berkeley joined the edX partnership.

Founded by elite professors, Coursera teams with universities across the world, enabling their top educators to step outside of the limits imposed by classrooms to teach hundreds of thousands of students, in what’s known as massive open online courses. In July 2012, Coursera announced a number of important developments: the addition of 12 educational partners (bringing its total to 16, including Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and other top institutions), $3.7 million in equity funding, and 1.5 million course enrollments.

UniversityNow envisions a world where everyone can get a college degree without taking out a loan, and has begun to build a network of accredited institutions with affordable tuition. Anyone can sign up for free classes; degree-seeking students pay $199 a month.

Other startups like Udacity, Codeacademy, Udemy, 2tor, the Marginal Revolution University, and the Minerva Project are backed by big names, and big money. The X Prize Foundation recently upped the ante. The not-for-profit, which hosts competitions to encourage technological development, announced its intention to offer a prize to improve education.

The college degree of the future

So what will a university education look like in five years? In 10? Will students still be willing (and able) to pay to attend elite programs on historic campuses? Or will they learn from the same renowned professors by watching their lectures online? What will a college degree consist of? Innovative educators are trying to figure that out right now.

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