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How online learning is reinventing college

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It's a question arising with increasing frequency from Cambridge to California. Online learning, once considered the Yugo of higher education, is now sweeping through American academia faster than anyone thought conceivable just five years ago. Almost every week, some elite private college or public university announces plans to put professors on camera and beam lectures to students half a mile or half a world away. For the schools, the technology is a way to reach people they might not otherwise engage and to experiment with a tool that could transform how they dispense knowledge in the future.

For those tuning in – often thousands, ranging in age from 9 to 90 – it is a way to brush up on a subject, prepare for a course they may one day take on campus, or just learn from a professor they otherwise would never have access to, like a godfather of the Human Genome Project.

The candid question behind the camera is where this is all leading. Some people, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, predict that in as little as 15 years half of the colleges in the United States will be in bankruptcy, upended by online learning and the move to hybrid models in which only select classes are taught in person on campus. Others see more incremental shifts, with virtual learning remaining a tool rather than a transformative technology in higher education.

Yet few doubt that college is ripe for change. Under the current system, students face serious problems getting into and through school, universities struggle to make money, and everyone grapples with fairness issues – why did she get accepted and I didn't? This is to say nothing of the rising cost of a degree that may, or may not, prepare students for a job. Mix in the advent of new technologies such as cloud computing, which makes information, videos, and course work accessible at any time from anywhere, and old-style bricks-and-mortar colleges look ready for reinvention.

Challenges remain on the road to an electronic "edutopia," of course. Traditional universities haven't quite figured out how – or whether – to charge for online courses, or if they should give people credit for taking them. Professors on some campuses are rebelling, concerned that MOOCs devalue in-person teaching. Skeptics argue that digital learning can't provide the intimacy of the classroom or the social experience of the campus.

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