Online courses have unique challenges, but present great opportunities

Advanced technologies are transforming the way people learn. As the internet has gained prominence in global society, universities have tried to evolve their academic programs to keep pace with technological advancements. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare initiative, where some of the university’s courses — including problem sets, lecture notes, and exams — are available for free online, was an early example of high-quality instructional materials made available to people who could not normally attend college, much less one as prestigious as MIT. This semester, Stanford University’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course has been made available online to anyone around the world, and so far 130,000 students have enrolled. These programs are examples of the benefits that technology can bring to education, but they are only the first steps in what we believe will transform how students learn.

The current model of university education is the familiar one to Carnegie Mellon students. High school seniors apply to colleges, say goodbye to their parents, and head off to a university campus for the next four years or so. While there, they attend classes, join clubs, make friends, and occasionally sleep. But the MIT and Stanford programs, along with the many existing online degree programs, are the vanguard of a different model of education, one that will extend opportunities for advanced education to people who have previously been left out.

There has been no shortage of criticism of internet learning initiatives from the academic status quo. What seems to be a common fear is that non-traditional students will lose out on the defining aspects of college. They will not be able to form the same close bonds of friendship, nor will they have the chance to expand their interests through extracurricular activities or general education requirements. However, this view loses sight of the real reason for non-traditional education. The students who can attend four-year colleges and follow the traditional path are served by the current system. Future programs will give the economically or socially disadvantaged the chance to better themselves. They will allow unemployed workers to learn the skills they need to earn credentials that will allow them the freedom to change careers.

The future of education is far from certain. For every successful and rigorous online program, there are many that are just “degree factories” or simply failures. Instead of focusing on the flaws of online programs, we should find ways to improve them. Online and distributed academic programs should not be compared to traditional universities. They should instead be judged on how they expand opportunities beyond the status quo.