Chapter 16: Move More Classes Online

Calls to increase on-line education often lead to two objections: First, the costs of on-line education are really not lower than traditional education. Second, an increased reliance upon on-line education will lower the overall quality of American higher education. The evidence, however, casts some doubt on the strength of these objections. It is true that, offered to small numbers of students, on-line courses are not necessarily cheap. Yet the for-profit schools have clearly demonstrated that there are enormous economies of scale, and major companies have turned from loss to profit (e.g, Bridgepoint Education, Higher Education Holdings) as scale expands. Some companies (e.g., StraighterLine) are able to offer online courses for $99 a month plus $39 per course enrolled. A full semester of courses can be obtained for well under $1,500. Regarding quality, recent analysis done for the U.S. Department of Education suggests that on-line education is not inferior at all to traditional learning—indeed, the contrary is the case. Combining on-line instruction with a small amount of live in-person support is particularly effective. To be sure, not all instruction can be offered effectively on-line, but large numbers of high enrollment introductory courses in most major disciplines are ready for effective transition towards broad on-line course offerings.

Regarding costs, most analysis of the issue fails to account for the considerable capital costs associated with traditional instruction, costs that virtually disappear with on-line courses. They fail to take into account the savings that can occur from reduced commuting and room and board costs when students can take courses from their home, a particular advantage for those in lightly populated rural areas.

Among those fighting on-line instruction are faculty at many schools (sometimes successfully sabotaging new on-line programs), accrediting and governmental regulatory groups (by imposing costly licensing requirements), and some faculty unions. Fortunately, enrollments are rising rapidly in spite of all this, given the cost advantages, convenience, and high quality of many online offerings.  In addition to formal degrees offered by such schools as the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Ashford University, the University of Maryland University College, or Western Governors University, there are efforts to extend learning via the internet by making course materials available for free on-line (the MIT Open Courseware project is particularly commendable).

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