It is difficult to deny the fact that the current model for higher education in this country is broken. Although the value of a college degree has never been higher, it has become very difficult for most people to afford a diploma. College tuition costs have vastly outpaced inflation over the past several decades; according to a recent report from Sallie Mae, the average family pays more than $20,000 per year in college expenses.
With the government struggling to pay its own bills, it is becoming more difficult for many families to obtain financial aid. Therefore, many college students have resorted to debt in order to pay for college. Unfortunately, the interest payments on that debt can quickly spiral out of control. Total student loan debt already exceeds $1 trillion, and there is no indication that number will stabilize any time soon.
However, there is a groundbreaking innovation that has the potential to completely change the education landscape: online learning. The Internet has the ability to control education costs in a way that would be almost unimaginable with any government policy or college initiative. By avoiding most of the fixed expenses of traditional colleges, online institutions could pass on their considerable savings to debt-ridden students.
Not only could Internet-based education help to reduce costs, but it could also greatly expand the opportunities available to disadvantaged students who do not currently have access to high-quality schooling as well as providing all the information and help needed to write research papers. Whereas most colleges must severely limit the number of students who are admitted, there is no need for such restrictions with online learning, which makes it a far more scalable solution to the problem of educational access.
Many elite universities are already appreciating the power of the Internet to revolutionize higher education, and they are slowly starting to experiment with the platform to test new strategies for educating students. For instance, Harvard and MIT have joined forces to create edX, which will offer free classes online to anyone with an Internet connection. A couple of years ago they only requested a written self assessment essay as an application.
Of course, edX is not the only important initiative in online education. Coursera, a company that was founded just last year, has already recruited many prestigious universities – including Duke, Stanford and Princeton – to offer more than 100 classes this fall in subjects as varied as world music and quantum mechanics. In addition, there is Udacity, which teaches subjects like programming and computer science by helping students build interesting projects like a blog or a search engine.
Although online education is still in its infancy – you can’t get a degree from edX or Coursera – it gives students many advantages that augurs well for its future growth. Students can watch classes from home, discuss lectures on message boards, prepare book reports and solve problems at their own pace.
If done correctly, online learning has the potential to spread education to the masses while simultaneously customizing that education for each student. For students who are suffering from the heavy costs of the current system, the widespread adoption of online education would be a welcome change.