Will Online Courses Replace the Traditional College Education?

                If you thought we were years away from an era in which online courses began replacing the traditional college experience, think again. Online courses are currently in the midst of a meteoric rise into the mainstream.

                In 2013 alone, we’ve already seen a number of major developments in the rise of online education and massive open online courses, or MOOCs. First, the largest university system in the world, the California State University system, announced it would offer $150 lower-division online courses through its San Jose State University campus. Shortly thereafter, the University of Wisconsin developed its UW Flexible Option, a program in which students can receive bachelor’s degrees simply by taking online competency tests  – no class time or learning required. Not long after that, a number of colleges and universities including Northwestern, the University of Cincinnati, Arizona State, Florida International, and the University of Arkansas announced their plans to offer MOOCs for credit hours.


                These three recent examples stand as a testament to just how far online courses have come in their young lifespan and how rapidly they’re changing the nature of college education. Only one decade ago, MIT established its Open CourseWare project with just 50 courses as a proof of concept; today, Open CourseWare has expanded to more than 2080 courses while boasting a whopping 125 million unique lifetime visitors. Coursera, an online education startup, managed to amass 2.5 million visitors in just 9 months after being founded in April 2012. As co-founder Andrew Ng notes, Coursera is growing “faster than Facebook”. In its first official course offering in the fall of 2012, the non-profit startup from Harvard and MIT known as edX racked up 370000 students. Yet another online education organization, Udacity, has managed to rack up 400000 users, collaborate on computer science courses with companies like Google and Microsoft, and ink the aforementioned deal to offer courses for the California State University system – all in just over a year since its inception in February 2012.




                This meteoric rise of online courses begs the question: will online courses replace the traditional college education?

                It’s easy to see the many advantages provided by online courses for which the traditional college education is no match. In as few words as possible, online courses enable anyone from anywhere to obtain a college education on his or her own schedule at little to no cost. Although the advantages exist and are rather significant, I feel that there are a number of factors still working in favor of the traditional college education that will prevent online courses from entering into the mainstream. First and foremost, an online course simply can’t replicate the hand-on learning experiences that can only be obtained within the classroom. Furthermore, students in an online course will also be deprived of the exchange of ideas that can only occur during traditional classroom discussions. Rather, they will spend their time simply listening to lectures without contributing or interacting.  Most important of all is the fact that an online education deprives one of the many intangible real-world skills obtained from a traditional college education that prove to be critical in the transition to the working world. As college students, we’re always learning how to take care of ourselves, to be (largely) self-dependent, to better work with others, to build up our networks, to develop our interests through clubs and course selection, and to prepare for the “real world” that awaits us when we graduate. Not to mention, we truly do enjoy our college experience and all the friends and memories it provides. To put my point in other words, online courses may allow you to obtain the education, but you truly miss out on the experience. This college experience, in my opinion, will ensure that physical colleges and universities concede little ground to online courses going forward.  

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12 thoughts on “Will Online Courses Replace the Traditional College Education?

  1. I really liked your blogpost! It was easy to read and you highlighted both the pros and cons of online courses. I think that online courses are a good supplement to traditional learning such as an adult wanting to take a course about something unrelated to their current major for enrichment purposes, however I strongly am against online learning as a replacement for traditional classes. I agree with all the reasons that you listed defending a traditional education. I definitely believe that half of the classroom experience is getting inspired from your classmates and your teachers. College is a great place to network and bounce ideas off of each other. Online classes take away from the experience because it only tests your knowledge and competency whereas learning with peers promotes personal growth. I recently read an article which talked about how Bill Gates thinks that in 5 years the best education will be on the internet. You can read more about it here: http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/06/bill-gates-education/, but I really hope that this will not be the case because then young adults will miss out on the experience of college and it may be harder for them to adjust to the professional world.

  2. I enjoyed this blog post because I agree that online courses are threatening to overtake the traditional college experience. Although online courses seem like a worthy threat, I dont think they will overtake the traditional college experience because of the intangibles you mentioned. By not conversing with peers about course content, online courses deprive the individual of learning multiple perspectives. I think some of the greatest things I have learned in college have come from what my peers had to say because they have taught me how to look at things through different lenses. Not all of my thoughts about online courses are negative; I like how online course allow students, who do not have the financial backing to attend a traditional college, to still obtain a solid education.

  3. Great job with this article. You picked a great chart to include and had a well-structured argument. I recently met with a recruiter for KPMG who talked about the 150 credit hours that are required to take the CPA exam. She said that the policy was instituted because employers wanted people to have more social skills. Accounting class requirements were taking up all of their course schedules so employers wanted to make it mandatory to take more credit hours in an attempt to encourage people to take a more diverse course schedule, mainly focusing on public speaking skills. This goal quickly deteriorated with the expansion of online classes. People easily take classes online which do not require them to engage in public speaking which was the whole purpose of the 150 credit hours in the first place. I think online classes can be useful for people who are going back to school after their undergraduate experience, but nothing can beat the traditional college learning system.

  4. Good article, I liked your use of media. I agree that nothing can replace hands-on, interactive learning. The relationships I’ve made with some of my teachers have been invaluable to me throughout my life and I can’t imagine the absence of that kind of personal attention. I don’t support taking online courses over regular classes if you are fortunate enough to have that option. However, I do see its usefulness for people who can’t afford college (most of us). I think we should focus on making education universal and affordable, and not just a privilege, versus developing online courses. I just don’t think it provides an adequate learning experience.

  5. It still shocks me that the more and more connected the world has become through technology, the more we choose to use it to individualize everyone and essentially isolate people. Choosing an online technology is such an advanced concept, yet could mean no social interaction throughout one’s entire undergraduate experience (that would be an extreme case, but still). I agree with many of our classmates who commented above that the physical college experience is essential, and I’d argue that someone educated online would quickly flounder in the real world. The most important takeaway is learning how to work with others because that is what the majority of the world of work revolves around. Although, it does make me happy to think that through technology, education can reach parts of the world that previously may have never had the opportunity or access.

  6. I’m reasonable enough to understand that there are definite advantages to online courses, but personally I don’t see them as doing away with in-classroom classes anytime soon. The most important part about class and the college experience in general is interaction with others. Undoubtedly, when we enter the real world, we will be faced with meeting new people and working with others whom we may barely know. The experience we gain from working with professors and other students, on how to interact, how to take criticism and how to motivate can be more essential to our careers than what is learned in the class.

  7. I really enjoyed your blog post. I liked your use of graphs to show how quickly online courses have expanded. My brother actually just began taking classes for his masters at Northwestern online. Even though many of these online classes you have mentioned might be of little to no cost, the cost per credit is nearly the same as it is here for his online classes. He also mentioned, as you mentioned, that it is much harder to learn the material without being physically in a classroom because you are essentially teaching yourself. I think there are some benefits to these online classes such as lower costs, but the advantages of physically going to a university are just too great. I think it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. It’ll be interesting to see if adults with online degrees will be able to compete with those who received degrees from well-known universities.

  8. This is a great blog post because it clearly outlines the history of online courses and highlights the positive and negative sides of the online course system. I completely agree with your point that online course provide a great education but lack the college experience. I personally would never sacrifice the experience for a more convenient education. However, I think there are many people who would. This is clearly evidenced by the skyrocketing popularity of online courses. I share your belief that online courses could never fully replace the traditional college but I think they are a great option for those the traditional experience is not available to. I also think online courses could be used to supplement the traditional college experience. I am intrigued by the impact these online courses will have on the traditional college experience and the work force.

  9. Great blog post. I think this is a very relevant topic as I feel in the future online courses will continue to become more mainstream. Although as you said there are many benefits such as it is very inexpensive and you can learn on your own schedule. But just like you I do not think it the best way to learn at this point. I support the current college education system because as you said there are many interactions that cannot be replicated in an online lecture which you view. I believe that these interactions are just as important as to what you are learning. In the future education will probably be dominated by online courses, but I hope they find ways to keep human interactions to support the learning.

  10. Really nice post. This is a hot topic issue these days. Obviously online courses provide opportunities to many people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access a college education. At the same time, however, there is a lot of criticism about how efficient these courses really are and if they can replace teachers. In some aspects, of course they can. But with more subjective work, like writing, how can a computer grade that kind of work? Also, you make a great point with the college experience question-it really is an experience, not just the courses you take. Overall nice job!

  11. I really agree author’s point that online education cannot replace traditional college. However I would like to explain more about the advantages of online education according to my experience. I am a Chinese. Many years ago, I studied in the University of Adelaide as an international student. During that time, I have to pay 22000 Australian Dollars for my courses each year. In addition, I had to spend nearly 1500 Australian Dollars for daily life every month. I studied there for three years and spent about 120000 Australia Dollars. I am now working for another degree that can be totally completed online. My course fee is about one third of campus international students’. And I do not need to pay for the expensive living costs. In addition, I feel study online is very flexibility in time. It allows me to study in any time. As a person who has work, I can only utilize off hours to study. Now I always study in the evening or during the weekend. It does not influence my current job at all. Therefor I really think online education is very suitable for people who have their own work or career.

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