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Ten Years of Online Education: The Bumpy Road to Better Days

by Staff Writers

Over the past decade the world has experienced a massive shift in the way we consume information. The advent of online education has proven access to quality education is now possible for anyone with an internet connection. While the future of online education is indeed bright, the road to get there hasn’t always been smooth.

The quality of higher education people received throughout the 20th century was often determined by the prestige of the institution. For many, attending costly Ivy League schools almost guaranteed that the resulting degree would have significant value upon graduation. The fact of the matter is, an Ivy League education today doesn’t always make the most sense.

Online education, on the other hand, has not been around as long as most brick-and-mortar universities throughout the world—many of which have been building their reputations for decades, if not centuries. As a result, employers and the public-at-large have often viewed online education as a fly-by-night proposition that would never match the quality and value of an on-campus university education. These days, however, this perception is changing quickly and dramatically.

The Trouble with Early Online Education Models
In 1976, John Sperling founded the University of Phoenix in Phoenix, Ariz., as an alternative institute of higher learning for working adult students. This for-profit university achieved significant success in the late 1970s and expanded to San Jose, Calif., in 1980. Nine years later, the University of Phoenix established its now ubiquitous online learning program. Unfortunately, due to early limitations in online access and desktop computing technology , the University of Phoenix’s online program could only accommodate two students at launch.

Today, the University of Phoenix stands as a prominent example of how for-profit business models can often conflict with providing students a quality education. In many ways, the University of Phoenix became a scapegoat for an industry that allowed profits to cloud its original goals of offering a valued education to those who needed it most. Examples of alleged wrongdoing by for-profit universities include several dubious recruitment and financial aid practices. These same practices sparked a lawsuit that the parent company of the University of Phoenix would pay over $67 million to settle out of court.

Five years after the University of Phoenix launched its online education program, the first completely online-based school was established in New Hampshire. CALCampus (not related to the University of California, Berkeley) had its beginnings as a Computer Assisted Learning Center (CALC) in 1984. The program would eventually take advantage of the possibilities for online education afforded to students by the advent of email and instantaneous mass communication via the Internet in the mid-1990s.

Online Education’s Promising Shift
Throughout the 1990s, educational innovators continued to find new and promising ways to offer quality education online. In 1997, an alliance of 19 state governors in the Western United States founded one of the first major public initiatives in the online education space. Western Governors University (WGU) today uses a competency-based model for assessing the skills and knowledge of its students across several practical areas such as business, information technology (IT), teacher education, and health professions. Another great benefit offered to WGU students is access to an assigned student mentor who will advise and guide students throughout their period of enrollment with the university.

In addition to the significant advances in online education made by WGU in the late 1990s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) successfully redefined the possibilities of online education in 2002 with the establishment of its OpenCourseWare program. Though MIT OpenCourseWare does not provide a structured degree-track program for its students, it does provide several invaluable learning materials and resources from many courses offered by the institute at no cost. This significant milestone not only proved that online education could be effective, it also opened up the possibility of accessing bona fide college courses online at little to no expense.

Breakthroughs in the Online Education of Today
These days, online education has more than proven itself as a viable alternative to on-campus education. More and more established universities are providing options for earning a degree online; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a school without at least one ‘online-only’ course available. Moreover, cost-effective online education resources, such as the Khan Academy, StraighterLine, and Coursera, are giving tuition-based online and offline academic institutions a run for their money.

Founded in 2008, the Khan Academy provides students with a collection of more than 4,000 free mini-lectures that cover many key areas of study offered by traditional universities. Like MIT OpenCourseWare, the Khan Academy does not offer degrees at this time. The diverse selection of lectures and material offered to online learners can be used to augment a student’s already existing degree program. Khan Academy can even take the place of a degree program for independent learners who either have a degree already or who have no need for an immediate degree.

StraighterLine is on the verge of turning around the public’s less-than-favorable perception of for-profit schools. The company offers unlimited online courses to students for a mere $99 a month, or $49 per course. This strategy allows both degree earners and independent learners to take course at their own pace without having to adhere to the strict schedules of a traditional university. While StraighterLine has yet to be accredited, many accredited universities will still offer college credit for courses completed on the site.

Coursera, founded in 2012, has also proven to be a popular mainstream online education option. Unlike the Khan Academy and StraighterLine, which rely on their own collection of lectures and resources, Coursera aggregates online courses offered by colleges and universities throughout the world. An added benefit is that students can enroll in many courses offered by Coursera for free. Not only do these courses offer comprehensive learning outcomes, many of them even offer verified certificates of accomplishment upon completion, such as this course in Single Variable Calculus.

As innovation in the online education space continues to thrive, more and more traditional universities are hoping to keep pace by providing online alternatives of their own. The fact that 6.7 million college students took at least one online course for credit in Fall 2011 clearly shows that online learning is setting the pace for a modern education. While many Ivy League schools have yet to provide online degrees exclusively online, some universities, such as Harvard, offer students the option of earning a part-time degree through a combination of online and on-campus learning.

The future for online education is indeed bright, and continues to get brighter each day. Today, regardless of location or situation, motivated students can earn a respectable degree entirely online. Of course, there are challenges online programs must overcome in order to match the quality of education offered by traditional universities – namely on-campus labs, research centers and social outlets. But as the gap between online and on-campus education shrinks, students will hone in on the factor that hampers education in the first place: expense. The online education sell won’t be tough: it’s a cheaper education that keeps excellent learning environments intact, while promoting the value of student independence. With this recipe in mind, don’t be surprised when students making their higher education choices pick a quality online experience over a far more traditional route.