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Online learning surges, providing new lessons in technology disruption

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Reports from the trenches of higher education: as has been the case in other fields, technology poses both new threats and opportunities.

There's no question that online education -- delivered by established universities, private companies, or nonprofit or free venues -- looms large in the future of higher education. Some educators are embracing the paradigm with gusto, while others are expressing fear for the future of their professions.

Consider this recent statement by James D. Miller, associate professor of economics at Smith College, in an essay titled “Get Out While You Can:"

“The self-made technology billionaire Peter Thiel… held a competition to find 20 of the smartest, hardest-working and most accomplished people under age 20 and is paying them to “stop out of school.”… Computing technology poses an even greater threat to colleges than Thiel does. Computing power is driven by the well-established trend known as Moore’s law, an implication of which is that the amount of computing power you can buy per dollar approximately doubles every year. Let’s say you’re 40 years old and are wondering what kind of artificial intelligence programs you’ll be competing with in 20 years. When deciding this, take into account that 20 years from now computers will likely be around a million times more powerful than they are today. Over the long run you don’t want to go up against Moore’s law, yet I fear that this is my profession’s fate.”

But the disruption of higher education from the exclusivity of expensive institutions to more accessible venues may open up new opportunities as well. Consider what Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, recently said in The New York Times:

“I’m just waiting for a Wikipedia University, with high-quality, online, open-source courses provided by a variety of different people. Or the moment when someone like Bill Gates creates Superstar University, finding the best professors for the 200 courses that a good liberal arts college offers, and paying them $25,000 each to put their classes online.”

We are already seeing examples of courses going online and being offered to ever-wider audiences. At a time when students are being asked to enter the working world with $100,000 or more of debt, and there is intense global competition in innovation from rising nations such as China, India, and Brazil, the time may be right to open up the possibilities technology and the Web can deliver.

Already, as we've explored here at this Website, institutions such as MIT and Carnegie-Mellon are offering limited online forms of their courses via online videos and presentations, free to anyone. There is a creative destruction disrupting the educational process in many ways, from online learning opportunities to new forms of education providers. For example, there are courses from online education provider StraighterLine which offers online courses in subjects such as accounting, statistics, and math -- for a flat rate of $99 a month, plus $39 for each course started -- or an entire year for $999.

The Web is opening up disruptive new possibilities for making education available at affordable rates to anyone that desires to pursue it. In a hyper-competitive global economy, we need all the educational innovation we can muster.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure