Online education offers many advantages to students including lower costs, accessibility, customized pacing, flexibility in scheduling, and digitally-based interactive tools. But it may not meet its most grandiose promises of revolutionizing education.“One reason, which is being discovered as the great online education experiment is carried out, is that most of us aren’t motivated enough to teach ourselves,” writes Dan Newman of The Motley Fool.
And because of this, the opportunities that massive open online courses (MOOCs) present may be a long way off from being realized — if at all.
Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, recently reported some depressing statistics to Fast Company. Of the 1.6 million students to sign up for the free Udacity classes, less than 10% finished a course and fewer than that earned a passing grade. Thrun told Fast Company that “we have a lousy product.”
A study of 51,000 community college students from 2004 to 2009, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, found an 8% -point gap in completion rates between those who took courses online versus in person. It makes sense that the social pressure and face-to-face relationship with other students and teachers lend themselves to better student performance.
For-profit programs like Apollo Education’s University of Phoenix also reported the same rate. Only 17% of full-time students graduate from its online campus within 150% of the expected time of graduation. Career Education’s American InterContinental University online program reported a bit better statistics, with 27.6% of students graduating within the same time frame, although another online school under the same company, Colorado Technical University, reported only a 9.5% graduation rate.
Udacity is now forming partnerships with companies to produce courses for current and potential employees. It will focus more on professional development. It also teamed up with Georgia Tech to offer an online master’s degree program in computer science, sponsored by AT&T. AT&T will use the program to train its own employees and recruit graduates.
With the question of how much a college education really is worth appearing repeatedly in terms of return on investment, this focus on vocational training may be the future for online education. Company-sponsored courses could be a healthy revenue source for for-profit schools, just as they are for Udacity.
For-profit schools could improve graduation rates and avoid the many regulations and criticisms around their benefits. A student who is going to school for an employer, or a future employer, can easily see the return on investment with a job at a specific employer at the end of a degree program.