Online Universities Are a Great Study

Virtual and other types of alternative learning eventually will supplant many bricks-and-mortar universities that charge five and six figures for bachelor’s degrees. Pro or con?

Pro: Limited Funds Call for Innovative Learning

In an ideal world, with unlimited funds, all students would have access to the best educational systems we could design. But our world is not perfect. And our traditional model for undergraduate education costs too much and delivers too little. Over the past 25 years, higher education costs, at our more modest institutions as well as at elite schools, have been skyrocketing. And many question whether the majority of today’s graduates are well prepared for the world of the future.

The challenge is to create new educational models that provide a high-quality education affordable for as many students as possible. Hybrid or blended learning, combining sophisticated online learning with face-to-face student/faculty interaction, is one promising method. Built on the latest research on how people learn, such "high-tech, high-touch" programs work. A 2009 Education Dept. meta-analysis showed that students learned more in hybrid programs than they did either in those delivered online or in the traditional classroom. And hybrid instruction can be delivered at considerably less cost.

Some colleges and universities and some families have the resources to ignore cost in pursuit of their educational ideal. And in some fields, and for some students, high-tech/high-touch may not be the most effective instructional design. But it is a model that may help many brick-and-mortar institutions increase both their quality and affordability. If they don’t integrate online or other alternative forms of learning into their programs, more than a few are likely to fail. Market forces will determine what higher education will look like in the future. The smart money isn’t betting that traditional bricks-and-mortar model will continue to dominate the landscape. More than a few brick-and-mortar institutions are likely to fail if online options consistently deliver more learning at a lower cost.

Con: Physical Universities Face No Threat

The outlandish notion that the Internet will put many colleges out of business would have been a little too simplistic even 10 years ago, when the most ridiculous predictions about the Internet passed for deep thoughts.

First, the residential collegiate experience far transcends formal classroom learning—through elements like socialization, transition to independent living, and emotional development for younger students—and is the very thing that can’t be replicated online. Williams, Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, and their lesser peers can rest easy: No one will opt to park their children in front of a laptop in the basement instead of sending them off to a real college, regardless of nominal costs (a significant portion of which are covered by student aid anyway).

Second, the proliferation of shoddy for-profit online "universities" does not threaten traditional institutions. The for-profit diploma mills typically target unsophisticated low-income populations who would need significant remedial work before becoming academically qualified for real college-level work. The explosive growth in their enrollment costs the taxpayers plenty in the form of wasted federal student aid, but does not affect traditional institutions in any way.

Finally, distance education, far from undermining institutions of higher education, has been widely and astutely adopted by them as an additional means of instructional delivery. Almost all traditional institutions have embraced online learning in one form or another and often use it to supplement face-to-face classroom learning. In addition, a subset of traditional colleges now offers high-quality online programs and has emerged as a dominant provider in distance education.

For the vast majority of colleges, the advent of online learning has been a net advantage in the form of better instructional delivery even for their in-person courses, additional means of supplementing the classroom experience, and broader reach to students off site.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Ray Freer

It always puts me off when people use inflammatory rhetoric as does Mr. Nassirian. I have a niece who is about to attend one of the colleges he thinks to be invulnerable, and it will cost about $200,000 for her to attend this institution over four years. "Outlandish" and "shoddy" just don't cut it. His point that the Ivies should not feel threatened is accurate. But, what about the middle and lower tiers of colleges and universities? If they don't adapt and attempt to control costs while simultaneously providing excellent instruction, I think they will find themselves in a difficult environment going forward. And on-line education does represent an alternative, no matter what he thinks.

neelofer mughees

How one can be so mechanical and dependent on a machine? We will lack emotional attachment if things go on like this. The day is not far when everything will be online. As far as studies are concerned, it's right that the increasing fees are beyond the reach of middle class and lower middle class families.

Gimme a BREAK

Having gone the grad school path at a private university twenty years ago, I see the horrific cost being foisted upon young people today, as though it ware the Holy Grail; it is not worth $80-100k for two years. Yes, maybe 5 or 10, out of each class of 60-80, will hit the payoff, but unless your employer is biting the bullet for you, you may benefit from a reputable on-line school, but there are lots of cheesy hucksters there, too.

Bill Odum

How can better access to better education at lower cost exist together? 1. The potential for replacing much of the written texts with electronic books with film clips to provide lower cost, more effective "text books" is enormous, and a good start! Different courses at different levels use technology in different ways. Collaboration between existing colleges and universities to share talent and ideas is extremely important. Probably state universities might be at the forefront of this effort, simply because they are less proprietary; competition is both a plus and a minus.

sue

Replacing overpriced textbooks with electronic media is a good idea. College texts alone can cost $500 per semester. But I can't see replacing physical universities with online courses. The interaction with live professors at a college is irreplaceable.

Chris Dawkins

Online Universities are really great. I have 2 "physical" and 1 online diploma. The latter one was the last educational experience and very good one (South Africa, Stellenbosch University). I've been lucky to meet (during yearly sessions) the best professors of the university and communicate with my colleagues. That was enough of physically being at the university. The rest has been done from home and online with good advice from the teachers and other students. However, the online education is good when it goes after a physical one, so that you have an understanding of what this is all about.
--Chris

Abhisek Nanda

I dont think an online educational institute would provide much help as programmes like personnel development, group interaction, ambiance, of a discussion and lots of other tangible things would not be replaced by laptops and internet. But experienced people demanding a higher skill and training may opt for this.

Sean Taylor

I've gone to my local junior college and University of Phoenix online. Both were good experiences, but with the online university, I found it frustrating when in debate not having that instant give and take. There would also be times where reading the words on a screen would lead to misunderstandings because sometimes, especially in debates and/or discussions, tone of voice can matter and can be the difference between someone taking offence or not.

The biggest advantage of online universities, or even my local junior college now offering more and more online only as well as hybrid classes, is for people like me that work two jobs and really need the ability to turn something in any time between midnight and midnight as opposed to a hard deadline of 10 am Tuesday morning.

Tim

I worked at an online, for profit university. Unfortunately, I've been exposed to some of the inner workings that have shown how poorly such systems actually function. Ultimately, it is about making money. The online universities are diploma mills. Professors are pressured into passing students regardless of skill, ability, or retention of material. Most individuals who are adept at managing their student workload will not question their grades because there's a self-assuredness when performing the work. The one's who are not very studious receive high marks and are pleasently surprised. Are they a threat? Eventually, yes. Right now, no. However, there was a trend I did notice while working at the online university. A number of students were choosing the online path as a matter of convenience more so than cost or quality of education. In terms of cost, the value of the investment is not there for an online university versus a brick and mortar with a strong reputation for academics. In terms of quality, even the worst brick and mortar offers something of greater value than online schools.

Jim

I earned three degrees traditionally, including one graduate degree, and I have 90% of a doctorate. When I felt the need to pursue an additional graduate degree, I chose the University of Phoenix and did the degree entirely online. Here are my observations: 1) I worked my butt off and earned every bit of that degree. 2)I learned a marvelous amount of new information, skills, resources, tools, and perspectives. 3) Not that I was at all weak, but I improved in my online communication skills to be a better participant in all online formats. 4) The student-centricity of the UOP impressed me more than the other half-dozen educational institutions with which I had been a student or instructor. 5) The efficiency and effectiveness of the UOP systems astounded me. 6) UOP, and many of its peers, are not diploma mills. Diploma mills by definition are simply charlatan organizations that ask the consumer to pay a fee for which a nonaccredited degree is issued. The UOP and its legitimate peers are satisfying accreditation standards and demanding appropriate scholarship and work from their students. Conclusion: It is not a case of either/or. Rather, it is a case of both/and. The traditional academic institutions will always have their place. I know; they did me a great service. Nevertheless, with that world, I believe we must embrace the wealth of resources provided by our excellent online institutions too. Given the evolution of our increasingly global economy, to do anything less is to regress.

Larry

I earned my Bachelor degree online. Why, because I travel in my work and am unable to attend a brick and mortar class. I found my classes very challenging, informative, good discussions and most of all I could attend from any place I had internet access. Without this I could not have competed my degree.

I made some good friends. There were four of us who were together most of the way through. Three of us met in Portland Maine for a long weekend camping trip and I attended the wedding of the fourth in Dallas. We established lasting relationships through learning.
I don't believe I missed anything but maybe a few sleepless nights because someone in the dormitory was making an ass of themselves. My classmates were not low income people who needed extra time and work to complete their education. They were all managers in their professions seeking the degree they never obtained.

My degree was from UOP, one of the best and for profit universities in the US.

woodwrk65

That degree that I have from an online university could have been earned by the person who I paid to go through the program in my name.

David

I have taught and tutored at a university that uses both online and in-class education with an open admission policy. I believe people feel that the online route is cheaper, but it may not necessarily be the case. The for-profit education schools do charge tuition fees that are well above an in-state college program. I thought the faculty at this school worked very hard to ensure the students received a good education, which otherwise may not be an option. Students had chance to rate faculty toward end of the course.

That said, it is critical to check the school carefully because it is a serious commitment of time and money for the student.

Sebastin

Thoughts that arise from the blending of original self-knowledge and other forms of consequent experiential knowledge provide the motives to take action to realize them in external tangible form. This is why the best of human thinking begins and ends with how to manifest one's uniqueness in the world. When you realize the beautiful vision of your heart, of your true self, you will rise to manifest the greatness of your dominant thoughts in all of your actions.

sebastin

In short, taking classes online and earning your degree online is no different from taking classes in person--it's just that online classes are a more convenient way of accomplishing your goals.

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