Sunday, April 5, 2009

Free College Degree Anybody? Competition in Higher Ed Sets In

Kim Clark of US News and World Reports has written an insightful article, Online Education Offers Access and Affordability, that captures many of the latest trends that have emerged out of increased competition in online enrollment and emerging technologies. The article has introduced me to University of the People, a free non-profit university that will begin offering free online education (including textbooks -- most likely open source textbooks, not the 15 lb. type you're imagining) leading toward a bachelor's degree in Business Administration or Computer Science.

Yep - I said FREE college, except for nominal admission and exam fees. Their vision?

The University of the People promises to open the gates of higher education to anyone in the world interested in attending college. We believe that education at a very minimal cost is a basic right for all suitable applicants, not just for a privileged few.
Hmmm. How radically democratic.

And who will comprise the student body of this institution? Students from all parts of the world, even the poorest countries. This is an example of truly embracing the fullest potential of online learning!

The learning experiences (according to the website) will be coordinated by a community comprised of active and retired professors, graduate level students and scholars who will facilitate and partner with students in a collaborative, peer-to-peer learning environment. What's missing from this equation is "The" Professor. That's right -- this learning environment seems more fluid, more of a community-oriented experience in which members strive towards meeting an end goal (which, if you think about it, is exactly what any student enrolled in a college class is focused on doing).

As I ponder this model of learning, the students leaving UoP will not only be achieving the learning outcomes associated with each individually degree but they will also be developing the ability to work in culturally diverse teams, assume responsibility for collaborative work, and fostering a global perspective of relevant topics -- skills that have been identified as critical 21st Century Skills.

According to an article posted in the Los Angeles Times in February, Shai Reshef, the Israeli mind behind this innovative concept, noted that he had been flooded with interest from hundreds of students from around the world who want to apply and an equal amount of professors who want to participate in the educational community. Admissions don't open until April. The University of the People will begin as an unaccredited institution but plans to apply for accreditation from a recognized authority "as soon as possible."

So here we go, everybody! The future is here. If you are employed at a "traditional" higher ed institution, ask yourself and your colleagues this question: Why are students going to continue to come to our college or university to pursue their degree when they have more options than ever before? Options that now include a free online college degree, providing an opportunity to interact, collaborate and discuss with individuals from all over the world.

As Clark's article points out, however, there is an inherent bias against online degrees today, however. So are the fortunate students who pursue and receive these free college degrees going to be viewed as qualified as their competition who may be clutching a degree from a bricks and mortar college experience? When will this shift? What will it take to make this shift?

If the root of this bias against online learning is the poor quality many online students cite regarding their learning experiences -- evidence that includes instructors who don't respond to emails, lack of interaction with classmates, unclear expectations, dull course materials (see my earlier blog post "Dear Online Professor") -- then perhaps this increased competition for enrollment will up the ante and more institutions will support their robust online enrollments with more dynamic and innovative programs centered around online faculty training, mentoring, and evaluation.

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