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Distance Learning Courses - Alternatives to Regular College

Updated on March 10, 2013

Distance Learning is the New University

American higher education is on the cusp of a revolution, a good one. With the cost of higher education approaching impossibility, the American university system is in for a seismic change.

According to the national Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of a four year education in 2009-2010 was $21,189, up from $3,499 in 1980-1981. For private schools, the cost was $32,790, about double the cost of a state university. These numbers reflect an increase of 37% for public and 25% increase for private institutions over a 10-year period. So a family forks over $131,000 over four years to a private school in after tax dollars, with no guarantee of a job after graduation.

Typically the cost is borne by debt, enormous debt. According to the Project on Student Debt, about two-thirds of the student body of 2010 borrowed to finance their college education, with an average debt on graduation of $25,250. Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in the United States at an aggregate of $850 billion, compared to $828 billion for credit cards.

A college education is rapidly becoming unaffordable, making a college degree a goal for those in the upper middle class and higher. There was a time when a student went to college to pursue a dream. If that dream is paleontology or Elizabethan literature, the undergraduate quickly realizes that his or her dreams need to be tempered by a strong dose of reality. Post degree goals need to be firmly anchored in material goals, of necessity. History will tell what this does for the richness of the arts and literature. - Online Courses from Top Universities—for Free.

But there are green shoots in the fields of academe. E-learning, sometimes called distance or online learning, is beginning to appear as an alternative to the traditional classroom learning paradigm. Online courses aren't new and have been offered for a long time. Anyone who has checked Youtube, for example, will see that there is a video instruction for anything from how to hang a door to how to clean your patio., a private company, offers thousands of video courses on every type of computer software imaginable. You can pay per course or get access to all of the offerings for an annual fee. But serious academic coursework is just beginning to come into its own.

An article called "Cheaper than Harvard" in Newsweek (May 14, 2010) explores how far the new age of learning has come, and it's only just beginning. A couple of computer science professors from Stamford have launched, a non-profit site that offers courses from major universities across the country—for FREE. The courses include video clips and interactive modules, rather than hour-long lectures. Like many endeavors, coursera started out as an experiment. One of the professors posted an online course offering and had 100,000 students enroll, with 13,000 completing the course. Although they charge nothing for the courses, the exciting possibilities are already attracting capital, with two major Silicon Valley venture-capital firms having already kicked in $16 million toward the venture.

At $279 per credit hour for a leading private university, there is a lot of room for improvement to the traditional educational business model. Kahn Academy, another non-profit, offers over 3,200 free online videos from basic algebra to advanced calculus, not to mention art history. Check out the offerings at

It's hard to compete with free. But even if these institutions charge nominal amounts for their offerings, the results can be staggering. If a traditional course is offered at $279 per credit for a three credit course, that's $837. A large survey course may include up to 100 students. Suppose the same course were offered at, say, $2.79 per credit or $83.70 for the course, and 10,000 students enrolled. The gross revenue would be $873,000—per course. Even if the model going forward is a non-profit one, the revenues generated can result in a truly staggering amount of high quality course offerings.

Are Online Courses Better than Traditional Classroom Learning?

Consider just a few of the benefits of online learning compared to the traditional classroom:

• You take a course at your own time schedule, pausing and rewinding when necessary. Have you ever tried to rewind a professor? You can online. Have to pee? Just pause the video.

• Interactive modules and quizzes to test your progress. Traditional academia has two offerings: mid-terms and finals.

• Review at your leisure; if you don't understand something, watch it again, doing further research as you go.

• Pace yourself. Take as much of a course load as you think you can handle. If it's too much, just scale back and take the courses when appropriate to your schedule.

• Scheduling your courses is finally predictable. How many horror stories have we heard about a student who can't graduate on-time because a necessary course was closed out. This problem goes away with online learning.

There are some things that you don't get online:

• Beer parties

• Football and basketball games

• The beautiful scenery of an academic atmosphere.

• Realtime flirting with classmates.

• The camaraderie and learning that comes from interacting with other students and faculty in the lunchroom.

Just as technology has made the United States Post Office partially obsolete, so too has technology reshaped the way we look at higher education. The powerful software that runs so many of our missions now has the ability to replace the classroom. And the situation is far from bleak. The economic challenges of online learning create new openings for the scions of higher education, openings that don't have to involve the taxpayer or beleaguered parents. What are those openings? In a phrase, New Markets. As in the example above, if a course can be offered to 10,000 students rather than a few hundred, and is priced to attract those new students, the new revenue streams can more than offset the lower tuition rates.

Is a Hybrid Campus the Future?

Traditional on campus learning is not a bad thing; it's just expensive. Online learning lacks the human interaction with other students and faculty, a serious shortcoming. But imaginative ways can be found to blend the traditional with the new. Perhaps we will see an arrangement where a student is expected to be on campus for a few days per month, while completing the remainder of the course requirements by computer. The variations are as limited as the imagination—and the market.

Academia should embrace online learning. It may as well because this genie is not going back into the bottle; not until it grants you your wishes.

Copyright © 2012 Russell F. Moran. All Rights Reserved


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    • profile image

      Bananafanafo 5 years ago

      OH NO! What will the HARVARD student do to meet the up class? How will they keep this up class closed to who they want in?

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comment. I share your optimism.

    • cynthtggt profile image

      cynthtggt 5 years ago from New York, NY

      rfmoran, while everyone is talking about the end of the American way, I see a new kind of future for our country, especially in education. Although I hold my own pessimism politically over the 100 years, I do see the Internet being a source of income and education far beyond what we see today, and the computer-minded kids we have today tapping into lucrative and creative careers. I hope I'm right. Good article and informative.

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 5 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      Interesting ... One of my original goals for retirement was to take some college classes for the heck of it, as opposed to those aimed at a specific degree. I will probably give this a try this fall.