The timing couldn't be better. Just as millions of working-age Americans are realizing they need extra education and skill-sharpening to thrive in a recession, a flowering of competition promises to dramatically drive down prices and raise the quality of online college courses.
Indeed, time-stressed Americans fed up with commuting costs are already choosing online education. More than 4 million enrolled in at least one online course last fall, up from fewer than 2 million in 2003.And some of the biggest online players, such as the for-profit University of Phoenix, say new enrollment has jumped by about 20 percent since the economy began its decline more than a year ago. While online courses have been primarily designed for working adults, younger students in increasing numbers are switching to E-learning. Some, like students at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, have little choice. FDU requires its students to take at least one online course per year.
The sector is booming even though online college courses have been dogged by complaints about poor quality and high prices. For example, the website of about-to-close Warren National University, which is not accredited by any federally approved agency, says it charged $9,000 for the coursework of a master's degree. Unaccredited courses and degrees are generally not recognized by employers or other colleges.
But demand for online courses might soon jump even more as expanding ranks of traditional ivy-covered universities and Internet entrepreneurs introduce online programs that are just a few hundred dollars per course. (Or, if you don't care about getting credit, they're absolutely free.) Meanwhile, technological improvements, such as easier-to-use video cameras and software, are helping online schools make their courses more rigorous and more engaging.
And some long-established online colleges may kick-start a race to raise quality by publishing indicators of their students' satisfaction and progress at a new website that is expected to launch this spring.
The competition and technological improvements add up to "a great thing" for anyone interested in learning, says Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the impact of technology on education. "What used to be expensive and inaccessible becomes convenient and accessible," he says. "You can see price competition coming." What's more, the best online courses, in many cases, now rival the quality of traditional classes, says Christensen, who recently virtually audited a Brigham Young University online accounting course. "Anything beyond the 10th row in a large lecture hall is distance learning" anyway, he jokes.
Lower prices. Although some of the big, established online players charge more than $1,500 a course, many of the newer entrants and public universities charge significantly less. Colorado State University—Global, which started offering online classes in 2008, asked in-state students signing up for their first online course this spring for $797. In 2007, Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, started offering graduate education courses for just $412.50 apiece, which means a student could get a master's for as little as $4,950 in 18 months. Next fall, the public university plans to launch undergraduate online courses for a tuition that school officials predict will very likely come in under $500 for a standard three-credit course—no matter where the student lives.
And several new Internet start-ups are promising even lower-cost courses, though they do not yet have the stamp of approval from government-approved accreditation agencies.
The new nonprofit University of the People, which plans to start accepting students this spring, will offer totally free online courses and textbooks leading to business and computer technology bachelor's degrees. The new university will charge students only up to $50 for admission and $100 for each final exam. (Those in the developing world will pay less.) The university will accept 300 students from around the world for its first semester this fall but hopes to expand quickly. The University of the People is not currently accredited. But founder Shai Reshef, chairman of Cramster.com, is hopeful of eventual accreditation because he's using volunteer professors from major universities.
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.
Colleges are also trying to make online courses more engaging by moving beyond simple reading assignments and videotaped lectures. Jeannette E. Riley, named the best online teacher for 2008 by the Sloan Consortium, uses and assigns podcasts and videos in her online English and women's studies classes at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Good online courses require more work on the part of instructors and students, which can pay off in more learning, she says. "I love online teaching because no one can hide. Every voice is heard."
All of these new changes are drawing in students like Linda Summers, a 51-year-old corporate trainer in Canton, Ga., who wanted to beef up her résuméand skills but didn't have the time to travel to a university campus. When she signed up for her first online graduate education course at Troy University, "I thought: 'What have I done?' I thought I had made the biggest mistake," because that course required about 20 hours a week on top of her 40-hour-a-week work schedule. But now, in her second course, Summers is comfortable with the homework and has been pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoys the online conversations with the other adult students. "Online courses are perfect for me," she says.