5 Reasons Online Colleges Could Replace Brick and Mortar Ones

This fall marks my twentieth year of teaching. Call me an idealist: The one lesson I’ve learned several times over is that there is no substitute for a teacher’s actual, human presence in the classroom, interacting with students by walking among their desks, glancing at their papers, making sure their eyes are looking at the board.

That said, I have been steeling myself for the brave new world of online education. I’m not a newbie, having taught an online course (on Great Books) some years ago.

Here are five reasons that suggest that the virtual college classroom could become the norm for many students before too soon.

1. Cheaper and Even Free Courses

In an era of nearly-trillion dollar student debt in which the phrase “indentured student” is too often heard, the lower costs of online education are attractive. Advances in technology and video-editing software have meant that, from a university’s perspective, it has become much easier and cheaper to put up online courses, as John Mitchell, Stanford University’s first vice provost of online learning, says in an interview in The Atlantic.

Online courses offered by the for-profits Coursera and Udacity and  nonprofit edX– some taught by professors from highly selective institutions like Stanford — are free but do not provide students with credits they could use to earn a college degree.

But that situation is already changing.

2. Universities Are Starting To Accept Credit For Online School’s Courses

Colorado State University’s Global Campus has announced that it will give full transfer credit to students who take Udacity’s free “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” course. 94,000 students have taken the course since it became the first one Udacity offered last year. 98,000 have signed up for the second class which will start in April; it is taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia who is currently on leave from that institution.

The course — which teaches students to build a web browser like Google and to learn the basics of Python, a programming language — is free but getting the transfer credit and a “certificate of accomplishment” cost $89. That’s the fee students must pay to take a test, administered by the Pearson VUE testing group, which has more than 450 testing centers in 110 countries.

Germany’s University of Freiburg, the Free University of Berlin and the Technical University of Munich, as well as Austria’s University of Salzburg, have already given credit for an earlier Udacity course.

3. Recognition of Problems Like Plagiarism

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that students taking start-up Coursera’s online courses were reporting dozens and dozens of instances of plagiarism. It is a hurdle that online universities face: When the number of students enrolled in a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is in the five digits, how to assess their work, let alone know that their work is their work?

The issue is far from being solved. Requiring students to pay a fee to take a proctored test is a solution edX (which was founded by MIT and Harvard) and Udacity are trying out.

Of course, taking one proctored exam does not mean that students did not plagiarize other work in the course and it remains to be seen if Coursera, edX, Udacity and other online schools will try to create innovative solutions to address the plagiarism issue. As the recent cheating scandal at Harvard involving over 100 students shows, preventing cheating is easier said than done.

4. Some States Are Requiring Online Courses Before Awarding High School Diplomas

If for no other reason, the purveyors of online courses need to take plagiarism seriously very soon because online education is becoming more and more a part of the curriculum for high school students.

Education Week reports that some states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho and Michigan) have laws requiring students to take an online course before graduating. School officials believe that such a course is necessary to prepare students for college and for the business world.

5. In Theory, an Online College Education Is a Great Idea

Free courses taught by professors who are experts in their disciplines that you can take while sitting on your own couch: It’s an idea that sounds too good to be true.

Maybe it is. As the problems with rampant plagiarism, evaluation of student work and transferring credit show, MOOCs are far from being a substitute for college classes at a traditional, four-year, brick and mortar university.

But anyone being able to take a course with an academic who’s a world-expert in their field, be it art history or physics  could radically democratize a college education and lessen the line between the haves and have-nots. The flexibility of “attending” class when you have time would mean that people could take classes around their work and family schedules — something that I, as a full-time working mother with a teenage autistic son who has only two child care providers (my husband and myself), believe is an innovation that is definitely for the better.

Mention college now and the first phrases that too often come to mind are “debt,” “student loans” and “what a lousy investment.” I still believe there is no equivalent for being in an actual classroom with a “live teacher” teaching student. But it is certainly time to restore faith in the value of a college education. Could online college classes and degrees provide steps to a solution?


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Anna S.
Anna S4 years ago

makes total sense.. some people said you still need hands on experience, but i actually think doing classes and submitting projects online make you more viable in today's workforce because everything is online.. and there are class sessions online so you still get the health debate and social interactions that are important.. not to mention a lot of online colleges still have a campus to give that personal touch.. i found my BBA in Health at www.elearners.com/online-degrees/bachelor/health-administration.htm and have been loving the online environment..

Adam F.
Adam F.5 years ago

In conjunction with brick and mortar schools, online courses are an excellent option for getting required credits for classes that you can’t get at the school you’re enrolled in. Always make sure classes you take online are accredited so they transfer. There’s a good blog on this method here: http://whatiscommunitycollege.com/insights/the-online-transfer-school-option/

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

do what you can online but hands on stuff is still important in most jobs!

Jessica Larsen
Janne O5 years ago

Perfect if not for one thing: It might make subjects you really struggle with even harder.

Maria D'Oporto
Past Member 5 years ago

My comment never showed up, so sad;

As a universitary teacher for eleven years, I believe there is no one unique solution for this, I think the quality could be reached in both systems and I consider the human interaction in class important,in my country classrooms are no so crowded so one can known the students well; in the other hand I had some on line courses and they worked really well, they are students that can't attend classes for diferent reasons and in my point of view on line classes are great for them, one can use blogs and cameras to interact with the class and the resultas are positive good; there is no panacea to cure all illnes so the focus should be in increasing the quality of classes , there are bad teachers in all places, and be sure students can have some kind of feedback about their achievments, a real teacher will try what ever is best for students and some need the on line options so we should make very good option too,

Navpreet K.
Navpreet K.5 years ago

Might be a good idea but it takes away from the college experience of actually meeting people

Virginia B.
Virginia B5 years ago

No one seems to bemaking the connection between on-line colleges and the REALLY GOOD JOBS. Someone needs to do a study (or to look up ones already done). Just check on where our top executives have earned their degrees. I'm betting not a single one of them got theirs from an online university or from the likes of Phoenix!

Virginia B.
Virginia B5 years ago

Michael M.: AARRGH!! As one college professor to another -- how did you attain that rank, if you don't know the difference between "to do good" and "to do well"?? P. S. I usually agree with most of your posting otherwise.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Online Colleges are cash cows offering half baked education for most.

Dominic C.
Dominic C5 years ago

Kristina, great comment. And you are right a student cannot forego the kind of interaction and education they have in a college environment. That being said, if the class is small enough and students can have that sort of interaction. A small liberal arts college can still have that sort of environment. But wait till you go to school in Big State UNI. Then there is no point already. The following are my reasons: -

A) Interaction - What interaction, Poli Sci (freshmen and Sophomore) have some 400 students in an auditorium and the lecturer hardly knows your name. Perhaps the only interaction is perhaps the TA, Asst. TA, etc.

B) Professors - Please make an appointment. Too busy - Big State Uni professors have a demand - to publish sufficient papers in articles, journals, projects to impress, etc.

C) Lectures - Some lecturers because they are obsessed (with something) tend to display their lectures in a very basic non-informative manner and their basic comment "Read the text, the assigned readings and contribute your project or paper assignment."

D) Lectures2 - Sometimes the Professor has to attend to more crucial matters and as such the TA takes over. The TA is basically a Graduate Student and sometimes either the fellow is incoherent or because he or she is egoistic tend to rant and obsessed too much on a topic and therefore disappearing the essence of the lesson objectives.

E) Financial Objectives - Paying for a 4 Cr Hr class like what I said in today's climate