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Are online learning platforms hurting colleges?

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

This is not the first time I introduce the huge success that e-learning platforms as Coursera, Udacity or Venture Lab are achieving. The point is whether colleges already consider these platforms as actual threatens for their business model. I’ve just enrolled in my second course on Udacity. After a warm up with the Web Applications Engineering course, I felt like retaking programming. But this time I had a goal I didn’t bear in mind by the time I was at University: deploying a real (and useful) online website. That’s the reason I’m taking the Design of Computer Programs course right now.

Going back to the point, a few colleges decided to join Coursera as a shift to avoid losing competition from the very beginning. The problem is they can charge nothing for the course, and Coursera had 1.75 million users by October 2012. The whole number were not potential customers, but maybe a certain fraction was. As Coursera states on its website, you will find a course “whether you’re looking to improve your resume, advance your career, or just learn more and expand your knowledge”. Here we are, a real competitor for BSc, MSc and short-term studies.

Coursera website snapshotUdacity website snapshot

From my personal experience with Udacity, I’d point the following as advantages with respect to regular universities:

Flexibility. Classes are conducted by short videos and sorted out by units, so you can set your own pace depending on your time resources and knowledge. In a regular class, the flow depends on different factors that might have an adverse effect on advanced students.

Professors. Some of the most recognized professionals from high-ranked universities as Stanford, Harvard or MIT have joined this non-profit initiative. That means you can learn how to program your own self-driven car from highly motivated people as Sebastian Thrun, Google project’s fellow, or build your first blog with Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder. This is miles away from the non-motivated, non-real-world professors you will find at Spanish Universities for instance.

Price. It’s free, that is, $0 down. While the US is facing a new financial crisis created by plenty of defaults on student loans (have a look on this NYT report), e-learning arises as a suitable solution for those  with limited resources who are not willing to go into debt, moreover with a scarce of jobs around. Perhaps this explosion might contribute to cut down prices and get a more affordable college education.

What do you think? Are e-learning platforms a real alternative for colleges, or just incidental tools?