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Online education could be taking a major leap forward on its road to legitimacy. Hillary Clinton is directly courting Silicon Valley in her $350 billion scheme to overhaul higher education, in a plan that may finally bridge the gap between Internet-channeled coursework and accredited higher education.
Clinton’s campaign, which provided the major tenets to news outlets, has the overarching goal to reduce student debt and lower the cost of education. Reportedly, one tactic would urge colleges to let students fulfill some requirements with less-expensive streaming classes and other digital initiatives. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of online education provider Udacity, consulted on the plan.
The idea seems to be bipartisan. Clinton competitor, Senator Marco Rubio, has his own plans for education reform, which includes a proposal for overhauling the accreditation process by including “low-cost, innovative providers.”
With both sides of the aisle focusing on this issue, one thing seems clear: After a long ramp-up and slow, but steady growth, the online education trend could finally be poised to take its place within academia’s hallowed halls.
For employers looking for skilled talent, that could open up the floodgates, as students may freely pursue higher learning without fear of deep debt. For entrepreneurs interested in an emerging sector, education may be ready to move from the fringe to the center of the action.
Educating The Educators
Some universities have bristled at the thought of online education becoming equal to traditional classroom offerings. Even as many provide at least some sort of online lectures or labs, some see those initiatives as interesting experiments. They may change up the model of learning, but that doesn’t make them as legitimate as in-person coursework.
Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook still prize top tech graduates from Ivy League or lauded scientific institutions, which somewhat upholds that notion.
Despite millions in funding, Udacity, Coursera, and the cottage industry of online education startups have struggled to gain the same respect (and accreditation) as a four-year university. So far, the startups have been busy building unaccredited, vocationally oriented degrees.
A bachelor’s degree from the University of California holds far more weight in the job market than an online education provider, even though alternative schooling is beginning to make inroads among Silicon Valley employers.
For students, the benefits of plans like Clinton’s or Rubio’s could be enormous. They could pursue training that would be taken seriously, without having to lay waste to their finances.
Udacity, for instance, created a set of computer-engineering courses aimed at students with zero background in programming. The cost: $200 per month. For what students may pay for a textbook or lab fees alone, Udacity students get access to tutors and a certificate of completion at the end of the self-paced sequence of courses.
Higher Learning, Lower Cost
Just last night, I got a glimpse of how much more difficult it is for students to choose online lessons over college classes, if they want to remain debt-free. I got a ride with a Lyft driver who told me that he works 12-hour days, 7 days per week. In his (little) spare time, he’s taking the Udacity computer programming “nanodegree,” paying $200 monthly. He’s in his 30s, has no college degree and doesn’t want much debt.
There’s a good chance with this kind of work ethic, he could get a high paying job in the tech industry. But it’s likely more difficult for him to get a loan because he’s pursuing a non-traditional track. For now, he has to work crazy hours to afford to live in San Francisco and go to school at the same time.
Right now, tuition lending policies favor two and four-year colleges, partly because loans have traditionally recognized “seat time” as a requirement for aid. Many online education providers are competency based, not time-based, meaning that if a student could pass all of the exams on the first day, they’d only need to show up for a few hours worth of classes. There’s no requirement that they ever attend class, just prove they’ve mastered the subject material.
Accreditation or other federal policies that begin to officially recognize alternatives to the four-year degree could help students financially, should they choose Udacity, Coursera or other online education providers. If talent is technology’s lifeblood, then such plans might just open a new influx of candidates to quicken Silicon Valley’s blood.
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