Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges?

17 Sep

Moi discussed free online universities in Can free online universities change the higher education model?

Beckie Supiano and Elyse Ashburn have written With New Lists, Federal Government Moves to Help Consumers and Prod Colleges to Limit Price Increases in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the U.S. Department of Education’s new site about college costs. As college becomes more unaffordable for more and more people, they are looking at alternatives to college.

Jon Marcus reports in the Washington Post article, Online course start-ups offer virtually free college:

An emerging group of entrepreneurs with influential backing is seeking to lower the cost of higher education from as much as tens of thousands of dollars a year to nearly nothing.

These new arrivals are harnessing the Internet to offer online courses, which isn’t new. But their classes are free, or almost free. Most traditional universities have refused to award academic credit for such online studies.

Now the start-ups are discovering a way around that monopoly, by inventing credentials that “graduates” can take directly to employers instead of university degrees.

If I were the universities, I might be a little nervous,” said Alana Harrington, director of Saylor.
, a nonprofit organization based in the District. Established by entrepreneur Michael Saylor, it offers 200 free online college courses in 12 majors.

Another nonprofit initiative is Peer-to-Peer University, based in California. Known as P2PU, it offers free online courses and is supported by the Hewlett Foundation and Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox Web browser.

A third is University of the People, also based in California, which offers more than 40 online courses. It charges students a one-time $10 to $50 application fee. Among its backers is the Clinton Global Initiative.

The content these providers supply comes from top universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Tufts University and the University of Michigan. Those are among about 250 institutions worldwide that have put a collective 15,000 courses online in what has become known as the open-courseware movement.

The universities aim to widen access to course content for prospective students and others. At MIT, a pioneer of open courseware, half of incoming freshmen report that they’ve looked at MIT online courses and a third say it influenced their decision to go there.

The New York Times reported about the online education trend in the article, Online Enterprises Gain Foothold as Path to a College Degree

Many free online colleges are not accredited. As an example, University of the People states this in their catalog:


At present, University of the People is not an accredited institution. The University is in the process of preparing the necessary materials to apply for accreditation from an agency recognized by the U. S. Department of Education. At this time no assurances can be given as to when, or if, accreditation might be granted….


The transferability of credits you earn at University of the People is at the complete discretion of an institution to which you may seek to transfer. Acceptance of the degree you earn in either the Computer Science or Business Administration program is also at the complete discretion of the institution to which you may seek to transfer. If the credits or degree that you earn at this institution are not accepted at the institution to which you seek to transfer, you may be required to repeat some or all of your course work at that institution. For this reason you should make certain that your attendance at this institution will meet your educational goals. This may include contacting an institution to which you may seek to transfer after attending University of the People to determine if your credits or degree will transfer.

Contact Information

For questions or comments, please contact:

Before signing-up for any course of study, people must investigate the claims of the institution of higher learning regarding graduation rates and placement after completion of the degree. The U.S. Department of Education has an accreditation database and you can always check with the department of education for your state. Back to College has a good explanation of College Accreditation: Frequently Asked Questions

Often these online ventures will offer a certificate or badge to show completion of a course of study. Education Portal defines the difference between a certificate and diploma:

Certificate Overview

A certificate is earned by a student after taking a series of courses relating to a subject. Students often earn certificates to get a step ahead in the professional field of their interest and certificates may be offered in similar programs as degrees. For instance, there are certificates in business, literature and technical programs. In some technical programs, a certificate may be required.

There are also graduate certificates, often taken either alone or alongside a graduate degree program. In some programs, the student may use his or her electives to fulfill a certificate in order to make him or herself more desirable to a potential employer.

Certificate programs taken alone are similar to associate’s degree programs. However, they take less time because core academic programs are not required.

Diploma Overview

Diplomas are similar to certificates but often earned at clinical schools. For instance, a diploma of nursing is offered as an option besides an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree. This diploma program is only offered at hospitals with specialty programs that provide training. A diploma often takes two years and involves as much clinical work as classroom.

Degree Overview

An academic degree can be earned at many levels, including associate’s, which takes two years, bachelor’s, which takes four years, master’s, which is two years beyond a bachelor’s degree, and doctoral, which is several years beyond a master’s degree.

A degree program differs from certificates and diploma programs in that it often requires the student to take core courses to support a more rounded education. For instance, at many universities, those earning their bachelor’s degree are required to take English, math, science, philosophy and history. Earning a degree also opens up many more potential doors to the student than would a certificate or diploma. Many careers require that the student has earned at least a bachelor’s degree; several career options require more than this.

Some online universities are awarding badges. Lynn O’Shaughnessy reports in the U.S. News article, Digital Badges Could Significantly Impact Higher Education.                                                                                                            

Doug Ward posts the article, Why Online Education Has Gained Revolutionary Momentum at PBS Media Shift:

The rush to create large, free online classes has generated anxiety at universities around the country. With finances already tight and with a surge of movement toward online learning, universities are being forced to move quickly to change centuries-old models of learning. Terms like historic, seismic and revolutionary now pop up in descriptions of the challenges that higher education faces in the coming years….

Technology leads the way

Internet connections, computers and cellphones have become faster and cheaper, providing easier access to online material and creating the potential to speak with, work with, and learn from nearly anyone in the world. Information, once something people had to seek out, now flows relentlessly to them. In education, lecture capture and lesson creation have become easier and cheaper, and online storage has made retrieval cheap and easy. Free tools like Moodle, Jing, YouTube, and Twitter have provided new means of information sharing and collaboration. Smartphones and the iPad have provided portable means of accessing and creating information, making learning more portable than ever…

College costs have skyrocketed

The expense of higher education has risen more than 550 percent since 1985, pricing many students out of the market even as a college degree becomes more important than ever for reaching the middle class. At the same time, the cost of technology has dropped, allowing more people easier access to the Internet and to resources for learning….

Convenience attracts students online

Online and hybrid education offers students freedom to work through course material when and where they want, and at their own pace, repeating material if needed, and reducing the amount of time they sit passively in large lectures…

Teachers innovate for a digital generation

Educators have been experimenting with technology, sharing ideas and collaborating as they try to find ways to reach a generation of students that has grown up with computers, cell phones, Xboxes, Nintendo and other electronics. K-12 schools, especially, have shown increased interest in using games, phones, iPads and other unconventional means to engage students in the classroom. Social media have accelerated the spread of ideas, spurring even more innovation.

Online and hybrid education offers new means of engaging students through interactive lessons, videos, animations, games, discussion boards and chats. These are all familiar and comfortable technologies for a generation of students that has grown up with ubiquitous technology….

Digital education offers a broad reach

Online education allows universities to reach students who can’t or don’t want to move to a physical campus, eliminating physical boundaries for recruitment and making nearly anyone anywhere a potential student.

Distance education is nothing new. It has existed for more than a century in the form of correspondence courses taken by mail. Radio and television allowed educational material, often lectures, to be broadcast, and educational shows such as “Sesame Street” combined education and entertainment…

For-profit colleges compete for students

The University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges have attracted millions of students and millions of dollars in tuition with online courses. This has caught the attention of traditional colleges and universities, which see many potential students slipping away. Some critics of traditional education have even indicated that a degree matters less than tangible skills, and have suggested using certificates, badges and other means as a way to authenticate those skills….

Big online courses gain notoriety

New organizations such as Coursera and edX have made headlines by attracting large numbers of students, large investments of capital, and commitments from big-name universities. That has increased the buzz about online and hybrid education, especially as new deals have been struck and new money has flowed to the organizations.

The success of large online courses, or MOOCs (for massive open online courses), at attracting students and capital, and the success of for-profit colleges have sent many colleges and universities scrambling to avoid the perception that they lack vision or the ability to change in an era of digital learning. No university wants to look like an also-ran….

College budgets keep shrinking

Administrators are looking to online education and technology in general as a means to save money. Budgets have been squeezed, especially at public institutions, even as fixed costs remain high.

Bowen and his colleagues at Ithaka S+R offer one of the more persuasive arguments about potential cost savings through more efficient use of technology, personnel, and facilities. Upfront costs are higher as courses are developed, they say, but once a hybrid course is created by a faculty member, additional sections can be added using less-expensive adjuncts and teaching assistants….

Where is this headed?

The move toward technology-aided learning will only accelerate in coming years. Many K-12 schools have been investing heavily in tablets and other technology in hopes of reducing costs on textbooks.

Others have embraced a bring-your-own-device model, which draws on students’ growing ownership and use of cell phones, laptop computers and tablets. Many schools are also investing in tools such as lecture capture, high-speed wireless networks, cloud computing, and social networking, and combining technology-aided education with classroom work.

Despite these many changes, online education is unlikely to push aside a traditional four-year on-campus degree in the near future. That “college experience” allows students to make connections with faculty members, to work closely with peers and teachers, to improve their critical thinking, and, perhaps most importantly, to mature as they live away from home for the first time. With technology changing the way younger students learn, though, and with more new options for learning popping up constantly, universities have no choice but to adapt and make it clear to students what they offer over the myriad online alternatives.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the Budig Professor of Writing at the University of Kansas. He is the author of “A New Brand of Business: Charles Coolidge Parlin, Curtis Publishing Company, and the Origins of Market Research” and a former editor at The New York Times. You can find him online at and, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting.                                                                                         

With any education opportunity the prospective student and their family must do their homework and weigh the pros and cons of the institution with with the student’s goals and objectives. In answer to the question of whether online college is a threat to traditional bricks and mortar universities, it depends. The market will answer that question because many students do not attend college to receive a liberal arts education, but to increase employment opportunities. If the market accepts badges and certificates, then colleges may be forced to look at the costs associated with a traditional college degree.


Online K-12 education as a cash cow for ‘Wall Street’

Critical thinking is an essential trait of an educated person

Producing employable liberal arts grads             

Borrowing from work: Schools teach career mapping

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

7 Responses to “Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges?”


  1. How relevant is a college education? « Comments From An Old Fart - November 11, 2012

    […] If college evolves into just a certificate for a vocational career, then is less and less reason for students and families to spend the thousands and in some cases the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree for a traditional brick and mortar education. See, Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges? […]

  2. Will ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCS) begin to offer credit? « drwilda - November 14, 2012

    […] Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges? […]

  3. Verifying online education identity: By your keystroke, we will know you « drwilda - January 10, 2013

    […] Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges? […]

  4. MOOCs are trying to discover a business model which works | drwilda - July 21, 2013

    […] Verifying identity for online courses Will ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCS) begin to offer credit? Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges? […]

  5. Georgia Tech offers a cost-saving ‘MOOC’ computer science degree option | drwilda - August 19, 2013

    […] […]

  6. University of Pennsylvania study: MOOCs are not bringing the level playing field to education that many thought | drwilda - November 24, 2013

    […] Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges? […]

  7. Harvard and MIT study: So far, MOOC courses are not growing as fast as expected | drwilda - April 15, 2015

    […] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: