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Is Online Education Overtaking the Traditional University?

Updated on September 5, 2012

This is the typical scenario in America today:

A high school student graduates at the age of 18 and matriculates at a Liberal Arts College or University the following fall semester. After four years (or more), the student has a degree in a subject matter that he or she may or may not use, plus thousands of dollars in student loans.

In a less common scenario, a high school graduate begins school at a traditional university, but grows weary of the money and time spent on subjects that he or she is not interested in. Fed up with the current system, they drop out, join a start up company, and wrestle their way to the top of the food chain by experimenting with new and fresh ideas for education that aren't quite so labor and dollar intensive.

So is this a trend that is destined to fade away, or is online learning on its way to taking over the traditional academia?


The advantages to online learning

Online education is growing in popularity as the Internet continues to expand and change the way we interact with the world. The majority of people have a high speed Internet connection, access to a computer and/or laptop, plus a basic understanding of social media. So what are the advantages to distance learning?

  1. It is less expensive for both the institution and the student.
  2. It allows students to gain "expert" advice from people all over the globe, without having to pay to travel.
  3. Students can get the same attention from a professor and classmates through email, video-chat, and online webinar software that allows for conferences and group discussion.
  4. Textbooks are available in e-format, saving students money and sparing the Earth more resources.
  5. Online education requires a level of initiative and self-motivation that translates well into the business world.
  6. The curriculum can be tailored to the individual, providing opportunities for learning by "doing".
  7. Web study tools are increasingly available to help students learn concepts, study with each other, and even provide opportunities to give back (by designing their own online study guide or study app).
  8. The institution spends more time with curriculum development, rather than employing custodial staff, buying equipment, and forking over large amounts of money to keep their buildings up to date.

Do online students perform as well?

The U.S Department of Education conducted a study that showed a statistically significant increase in the success rate of online students versus traditional students. The NY Times summarized the study with some probing thoughts.

"But what about the human interaction?"

This is one of the biggest arguments against online learning. The truth is that online learning facilitates interaction with more people across the globe than in a tiny classroom. With more financial resources available students can take the opportunity to travel abroad or visit exotic locales, all while staying connected to the classroom.

Technology has given us the ability to connect more, not less. Many online programs have video conferencing, allowing the students and teacher to interact with each other. Online study groups are popping up everywhere. Students can reach out to people in other universities to collaborate and learn together. Online learning has not turned education into a personal experience. It is turning education into a global community experience.

Harvard Square
Harvard Square | Source

Obstacles to the online learning trend

It is only a matter of years before the online learning trend finds a way around the obstacles that are currently keeping it from overtaking the traditional university altogether.

Taxpayers play a big role in traditional education. Until there is a way for the government to regulate and integrate with online learning, the local classroom will continue to augmented by technology, not taken over by it.

Ive League Universities hold a lot of weight in the political world. It will take a slow shift in the culture's way of thinking (not to mention a new way to analyze the probability of success in students) before the typical degree from Harvard will have to compete with online institutions.

In college, sports are big. They are where a lot of the money is. Online learning institutions will have to find ways to continue this foundational part of academic culture, because sports aren't leaving the national arena ever.

Right now, institutions provide a lot of people with jobs. From custodial staff, to cafeteria workers, dorm advisors, teachers, professors, and Boards of Education, online learning is much more streamlined and simple. While it provides financial relief to students (who don't pay as much), it also puts a lot of people out of a job.


The Minerva Project

In the first of its kind, the Minerva Project has been gaining press and notoriety as the first American Elite online University. Young start ups have put together a team of expert professors to develop a curriculum and online learning experience that rivals the Ivy League.

For less than $20,000 a year, Minerva expects to educate its students with its top rate technology and professors. The rigorous online curriculum will not be easy, targeting the best and the brightest that are shut out of traditional universities because of cost.

Each year, the students will be invited to live in a different country, experiencing the best the world has to offer in culture, language, and experience. The project was started by Ben Nelson, an ex-CEO from the Silicon Valley. He has been given $25 million dollars to build a university from scratch.


1 million
6.1 million

Information is everywhere

We live in the information age. No longer do people need access to an elite library or classroom to gather information. It is everywhere. You can read, research, experiment, and learn right from your bed or table with only a laptop. This widespread access to knowledge will drive the traditional academic world to reassess what is working and what isn't.

For more information about the best online learning opportunities, check out OEDb's Online College Ranking. These are the top rated online universities, which are different from the traditional accredited universities that offer online learning and degrees. has a comprehensive site for those interested in getting their degree online.

This trend looks like it is here to stay.


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    • Ace609 profile image


      6 years ago from Hamilton, NJ

      I've been taking online classes at Full Sail University for about a year now and I have to say that it's awesome. I can do my homework in my underwear whenever I want and take naps throughout the day. You actually learn too, but you have to have a lot of self discipline and motivation to succeed in an online education. I just think about the debt that's going to be hanging over my head when I graduate and that keeps me pretty motivated. It's kind of like Facebook/twitter which makes it even better and the school has its own blog where you can make/design your own page and communicate with your fellow peers and instructors. I love it!

    • Ruchira profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      Good pointers between online education vs university, Julie.

      I feel that a student should get exposed to University and once he has become a professional he could opt for online education 'cause it is so much feasible esp with deadlines to meet at work.

      voted up as useful

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 

      6 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      I am personally attending an online university and I love it. Due to where I lived when I started my degree and where the nearest school was, it would have been impossible for me to have begun pursuing my career.

    • breakfastpop profile image


      6 years ago

      My daughter received her Masters online and she worked her butt off to get it. I don't think that the on-line experience will replace traditional study but it certainly is a vital part of c continuing education,

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      great information and well presented, Julie! Yes, I am currently considering getting my MFA in Creative Writing via the online program at Full Sail University. Sure, it will be primarily computer-mediated-communication; however, there is another great advantage to elearning: one-on-one conversations with professors are at a higher chance than that of in a traditional classroom setting.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      6 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      Very comprehensive hub concerning the online education idea. One component I think you are missing is for laboratory experiments. During my engineering degree I did some electronics labs that could have been done at home with a kit, but some semi-conductor physics labs that really required the university facilities.

    • peoplepower73 profile image

      Mike Russo 

      6 years ago from Placentia California

      Before I retired, I developed online training courses for Toshiba's Telecommunications Divison. In my last year, my courses resulted in issuing over 13,000 certifications for Toshiba dealer technicians in the installation and operation of Toshiba business telephone system.

      I did it all through explaining programming methods and simulation of software that are required to program the systems. The simulations would not allow the students to continue if they did not enter the correct information.

      There was a segment on 60 minutes about the Khan Academy. This person is brilliant and has developed a blended learning system that uses both his online courses with teachers in the classroom that monitor each students progress. If they see a student is not progressing, they will help that student come up to speed, while others continue at their own pace. Here is the Wikipedia introduction to his work.

      The Khan Academy is a non-profit[2] educational organization created in 2006 by Bengali-American[3] educator Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School. With the stated mission of "providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere", the website supplies a free online collection of more than 3,300 micro lectures via video tutorials stored on YouTube teaching mathematics, history, healthcare and medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, macroeconomics, microeconomics, and computer science.

      Voting up useful and sharing.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      6 years ago from Western NC

      Fantastic hub! Thought-provoking and I really do think the online world is trending toward making education have at least a large online component. I have a feeling that it's really going to explode in connecting people from all over the world and learning together in virtual classrooms. I also think that online education totally levels the educational playing field. You just need a computer and a modem and information is at your fingertips. Voted up/tweeted/G+.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      6 years ago from New York, New York

      Very interesting article about online education, Julie. My brother actually got his masters in marketing at the University of Maryland, all online and never actually stepped foot on the campus at all. So I do know first hand that this is definitely capable and up and coming trend. Have of course voted up and shared too!

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 

      6 years ago from New York City

      This hub scores on all levels for me, because I been using online education after college, and after my 10 year military service to develop myself as a E-business owner today, and also as a hubpages writer as well.

      So I definitely love how you put this all together, and the factual info here is priceless for those looking for alternative ways to save money, to learn much more then they can imagine, and then some.

      Awesome hub here and this is getting shared on my Pearltrees network as well as all the others.

      You know with Khanacademy, TED, and LearnersTV online networks, there really is no excuse why many folks are missing out on learning today especially the youth.

      Exceptional hub! Julie & right on point.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Interesting hub. I personally loved the experience of going to class and interacting- and I feel like I am more engaged that way. Online anything gets impersonal- no matter how much people say there's a connection. But in the long run I do see the benefits of not having to worry about a physical campus, staff, and facilities that come from traditional online education.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      GREAT hub....interesting too - I wonder what will become of education as we know it in a few years. You could take online classes when I went to college but it was so messed up and difficult I never did. I wanted to though to save myself a 45 minute drive through barren territory, woods and cliffs:) hahaha

      I love learning new stuff so I would take online if it was easier.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very detailed look at a growing trend in education. You did a great job, Julie, of presenting information here; nice work!


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