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NYT: Online Degrees Will ‘Change Higher Education’

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CREDIT: istock photo / MiquelMunill

Are degree-granting online universities the next great invention? The New York Times seems to think so, suggesting in a new article that such ventures “have the potential to change higher education” in the same fashion that Wikipedia “upended the encyclopedia industry” (really, NYT?) and iTunes revolutionized the music industry.

In a series of articles published today by the New York Times, reporter Tamar Lewin explores “the digital route to a college degree,” which the publication says has been increasing in popularity as people seek a “cheaper, faster, more flexible method.”

Most experts agree that given the exploding technologies, cuts to university budgets and the expanding universe of people expected to earn postsecondary degrees, there is no end in sight for newfangled programs preparing students for careers in high-demand areas like business, computer science, health care and criminal justice.

The stories feature tales of “non-traditional” degree earners like Ryan Yoder, who took his 72 credits from University of South Florida—completed “years ago”—spent $216 for two courses the from web-based Straighterline and took the bundle to Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, which gave him a bachelor’s degree in June.

Straighterline, which “is a company, not a school,” allows anyone to take courses typically found at community colleges for less. (“A full ‘freshman year’ for $999.”)

But the series does little to address the concerns over online-based, alternative higher education.

The Times’ series lacks opinions from those critical of such institutions. The main article does note, briefly, that “critics worry” such courses are not as rigorous and are more prone to cheating.

(Screw U: How For-Profit Colleges Rip Off Students)

The anecdotal stories also don’t reveal what happened to the featured students post-degree: Are they employed? Do they have educational debt? Has their online degree had a measurable impact?

The only source who speaks with much worry about online degree programs is Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University. He tells the Times such companies’ “advertising emphasizes how fast students can earn credits, not how much they will learn.” He writes:

“Taking a course online, by yourself, is not the same as being in a classroom with a professor who can respond to you, present different viewpoints and push you to work a problem. There’s lots of porn and religion online, but people still have relationships and get married, and go to church and talk to a minister.”

The other, only real hint of the trouble such programs can cause students comes from a first-person piece by reporter Tamar Lewin who tries her hand at an online course, which begins with a screening test. She doesn’t know the first two questions, so she calls her daughter. “First test, first two questions – and I had cheated.”

By the end of the month, Lewin is struggling to keep up with the course and running into obstacles, like the desire for an in-person teacher. She doesn’t need the credit so, she writes, “like millions of other online students, I dropped out.”

Not surprisingly, a majority of students aren’t succeeding through places like Straightline, where only 42 percent of students are passing courses. (Or, as the sugar-coated NYT article phrases it, “60 percent of whom completed their courses, with about 70 percent of those passing.” Do the math: 42 percent.)

There’s no doubt that alternative forms of education can be beneficial for some students and that financing a four-year degree from a traditional college isn’t an option for others. And the disturbing practices at some for-profit colleges don’t mean other commercial ventures aren’t concerned with offering affordable, a la carte courses.

But it’s important to ensure proper regulations are in place so students don’t spend thousands of dollars on “discounted” courses they don’t complete or that merely provide job-specific training. Spending $999 on your freshman year might seem like a steal—but not if you just flounder and drop out.

Brian Stewart is the Communications Director at Generation Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @brianstewart.

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