More Universities Embrace Online Learning

The online education movement gathered more steam this week, as Caltech, Duke, Rice, Johns Hopkins, and other global universities announced that they will join Stanford and Princeton in offering free online courses through Coursera. Upping the ante even further, Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania will invest a combined $3.7 million in the online learning provider, which only launched last year and has already partnered with 16 universities.

While these moves aren’t strictly in the graduate education space (which we mostly cover), it’s important to note how quickly schools are adopting online learning as a legitimate alternative (or, in many cases, a complement) to traditional classroom-based teaching. Between Coursera and other initiatives such as MIT’s and Harvard’s EdX joint venture, it seems that there will be no shortage of innovation in this space in the coming decade.

Coursera and its partner universities plan to have more than 100 online class running this fall. All will be free, and none will offer the ability to get credit or earn a degree, although that may change down the road. Currently, students can earn a certificate, although the certificate does nothing more than confirm that the student completed the course.

In the grand scheme of things, this is still just a tow in the water for these schools, but that could change quickly. Look around and you’ll see some well regarded universities that offer entire programs online, such as Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC. In some respects, UNC’s push represents the opposite approach: It’s the all-in, “yes this is a real degree-granting program that happens to be online” way to go about it. Will this model win out, or the “free taste with the occasional certificate” model prove to be more popular?

The reality is that they education sector may settle somewhere in the middle, although we fully expect many more universities to offer full online degree-granting programs in the next few years. Once something like this tips and momentum starts to build, trustees and top administrators at universities quickly start to ask, “What are we doing in that space? Why aren’t we doing more?” It’s only a matter of time.

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