Another group of volunteer professors is putting the finishing touches on the free, online Peer 2 Peer University. Joel Thierstein, whose day job is as an associate provost of Rice University in Houston, says that by this summer, volunteers should be ready to present a few free online courses in subjects like economics, music theory, and writing. The website will also enable anyone to create any kind of free course for anyone else. These first courses, at least, will not be accredited.
Many major universities, including Yale, MIT, and Stanford, have been allowing webizens to virtually audit lectures on their websites or via iTunes U. While there's currently no way to take tests or earn credit, a for-profit website that started in January, Academic Earth, is gathering many of the free online college courses on one site to make it easier to peruse all the offerings. Eventually, 23-year-old founder Richard Ludlow hopes, the site will also offer free online textbooks and podcasts and opportunities for interaction among students. Eventually, Ludlow also hopes Academic Earth will make some money through advertising or promotion of other education-related content.
Better quality.Of course, price is only part of the equation. Even free classes can waste precious time if the students don't learn. There's still plenty of skepticism about the quality of online classes. Indeed, some of online education's biggest boosters say that most virtual classes are designed for working adults and may not be a good fit for, say, 18-year-old freshmen with poor self-discipline and time-management skills. Those students, they say, might need peer pressure and in-person reminders from professors to meet homework deadlines.
Critics of online learning can be yet more damning. A recent survey of professors found that nearly half of those who had taught an online course felt that online students received an inferior education. Plenty of students also feel burned. Rosie Joseph, 20, of Cincinnati dropped out of her University of Phoenix finance courses last year after two of her four instructors failed to respond promptly enough to her E-mails asking for explanations. "They weren't helpful at all," she says. The clincher for her: She called up local employers to see if they would hire someone with an online degree, and at least one said, "We don't encourage it," Joseph says.
But her fiancé, 25-year-old Tim Scott, says he's sticking with his online University of Phoenix information technology courses. He says his instructors have been responsive. And while he says the classes are sometimes boring and comparatively easy, he feels he is improving his writing and computer skills. Besides, he says, "this is pretty much the only way I could" get a college education, since he works nights as a clerk in a drugstore.
Analysts say the market and technological forces that are driving down prices will cause some schools to improve services and quality. In fact, many online colleges are responding to complaints like Joseph's. The University of Phoenix, the University of West Florida, and additional online schools require instructors to respond to student queries quickly, typically within 24 hours. The schools usually check up on professors by surveying students. Some online schools, such as Tiffin University's Ivy Bridge online two-year college, go even further, hiring "coaches" or "advisers" who call or E-mail students regularly to encourage them and resolve complaints. And some schools are trying to ensure quality by limiting online courses to about 20 students each.
To make their courses more convenient for working adult students, some schools are replacing job-unfriendly 13-week semesters with shorter, more intense courses. And some online universities, such as Capella, are trying to reduce frustration with online student collaboration by accepting only more mature students.
Many colleges are also ratcheting up the rigor of online schoolwork. Online courses now typically require students to post gradable comments about each week's assignment, which means that online students can't sit in the back of the class hoping the professor won't call on them. And several schools are cracking down on cheating. Some professors now require online students to collaborate on projects using software that shows who made what changes, so they'll know if any team members slacked off. Troy University in Alabama requires online students who want to take their tests at home to install software that locks down their Web browsers and a spy camera so that remote observers can make sure they don't cheat.