In a few years, low cost online courses and degrees will be available to anyone. There are two trends: the entrepreneurial professors like Jim Groom and the low-cost online schools like theNew Charter University. Once these two forces merge, regular colleges will experience intense competition. They still provide much higher quality of learning experience than online degrees. Like with any other disruptive innovation, the modular low-cost college courses begin eroding the bottom segment of the market first. This is to say, they are not that great yet. For example, here is an example of the quiz developed by nameless faculty of the New Charter University, in the course on critical thinking:
What is the correct order of the levels of thinking and knowing:
- touchers, trusters, feelers, collectors, relativists, truth seekers, sages
- touchers, feelers, collectors, relativists, sages, trusters, truth seekers
- feelers, trusters, touchers, relativists, collectors, sages, truth seekers
- truth seekers, trusters, touchers, feelers, collectors, relativists, sages
In other words, it is not there yet.
The site is sleek and easy to use, the “freemium” economic model is great, but the content needs more work. The quiz above relies on one particular book, and it simply invents its own terminology – not a great move for a course that can become modular. But there are no intrinsic barriers that would prevent the new competitors from catching up with the traditional schools in terms of quality of their coursework. They just need to grow in scale, get access to real money, and start hiring people like Jim Groom to create really wonderful courses, with a sense of community among students. The scale is the issue – low cost is only feasible when the scale is large.
Three things need to happen for the higher education industry to be in trouble – relaxation of the regime of regional accreditation tied to the course credit concept, emergence of high quality low cost college courses, and establishment of a market for those courses to become truly modular that is easily transferable from one institution to another. Of course, if the student loan bubble is going to be half as dramatic as the 2008 housing bubble, it will make dramatic disruptive changes more likely. When and if these three (or four) things happen, the argument about the quality of online education will be resolved the same way as the argument between machine-made and handmade shoes was resolved in 19th century. People will vote with their wallets.
Only those colleges that can capitalize on the quality of their out of class experience will survive the shock.