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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