Online ed means low-cost, high-quality college

Online technology “promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education,” predict John Chubb and Terry Moe in the Wall Street Journal. Elite universities are putting classes — if not degrees — online.

One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

And lectures just scratch the surface of what is possible. Online technology lets course content be presented in many engaging formats, including simulations, video and games. It lets students move through material at their own pace, day or night. It permits continuing assessment, individual tutoring online, customized reteaching of unlearned material, and the systematic collection of data on each student’s progress. In many ways, technology extends an elite-caliber education to the masses who would not otherwise have access to anything close.

College won’t be 100 percent online, Chubb and Moe predict. Students will “go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online.”

The “college experience” is very expensive.

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  1. Low-cost is one thing. High quality? That has yet to be seen. We’ve had the promise of computer games and applications driving higher quality education for decades now, and while some excellent programs have been developed none yet substitute for traditional classroom instruction.

    A ton of money has been put into various forms of online professional education, but I’ve yet to see an example that has the level of engagement of seeing the same speaker in person. There are considerable differences between being in a live audience and watching something on a television or computer screen, not the least of which is that you’re much less apt to be distracted or to “multitask”.

    I suspect that truly effective online education is going to end up being a lot like Groupon – that company’s success depends upon a sizable staff of traditional copywriters and salespeople who operate behind the scenes. If you want the level of support, oversight and engagement that is apt to make online education truly work for a large population of students, I expect that you will need to have an appropriate staff of qualified intermediaries – graduate students, junior faculty, adjuncts, etc. – to provide the structure and support that you cannot get from a webcast of a “talking head” with a powerpoint presentation, or online games and quizzes.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Courses, but not degrees, offered via video, are not new:

    Nor are simulations or video games.

    I’m glad to see more of this, but it isn’t going to change things very much.

    A long time ago optimists were very excited about having lots of public libraries because now people would have access to all the books they needed to educate themselves. I’m quite happy with my local public library, but it hasn’t replaced any of the traditional educational avenues either.

  3. What the article completely misses is that the market for degrees, as opposed to education, are all the human resource departments which must vet, without the requisite knowledge, all the job applicants who show up at their organization’s doors. A degree allows the HR department to pass the buck of determining whether job applicants are capable of doing the job and that’s a valuable function. At least to the HR departments of the world.

    By being a valuable function to HR departments a degree, as opposed to the education which the degree is supposed to represent, takes on a value separate from that education. The easiest way to see the distinction is in the number of high profile scandals related to either the false claim of possession of a degree or a degree from the University of Wallpaper.

    It’s a complex situation with schools naturally inclined to try to raise prices abetted by both those HR departments as well as the federal government on the one hand and kids/families as well as prospective employers on the other.

    It may just be that part of the impetus for a surge in an interest in entrepreneurial endeavors is a result of smart, hard-working kids who’ve simply been priced out of the market for a degree and, in the grand tradition of entrepreneurs everywhere, are seeking to make lemonade out of lemons.

  4. Because if there is one thing Nobel Laureates are well known for, it’s the quality of teaching.

    And their clarity. The quality of their teaching and their clarity.

    And their inspiring ethusiam for their subject. The quality of their teaching, their clarity and the inspiring enthusiam for their subject.

    Well, there’s their interest in helping people understand their subject at the undergraduate level. The quality of their teaching, their clarity, the inspiring enthusiam for their subject and their interest in helping people understand their subject at the undergraduate level.

    Oh. Wait.

    None of those?

    So, why do we want nobel laureates to teach a million students, again?

  5. Cranberry says:

    Of interest to the discussion:

    Easy A’s may be even easier to score these days, with the growing popularity of online courses. Tech-savvy students are finding ways to cheat that let them ace online courses with minimal effort, in ways that are difficult to detect.

    Take Bob Smith, a student at a public university in the United States. This past semester, he spent just 25 to 30 minutes each week on an online science course, the time it took him to take the weekly test. He never read the online materials for the course and never cracked open a textbook. He learned almost nothing. He got an A.

    How about matching online instruction with proctored, offline tests? After reading the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article about cheating in online classes, I will not believe it’s a high-quality education. Try a large study with offline assessments first.