While hardly news that online learning is rapidly gaining credence, the depth of its reach, and the ways it threatens American college culture, is observed in insightful fashion by The Washington Monthly.
Instead of trying to directly challenge American colleges—a daunting proposition, given the political power and public subsidies they possess—the new breed of tech start-ups will likely start by working in the unregulated private sector, where they’ll build what amounts to a parallel higher education universe. A few weeks after returning from the West Coast, I watched Eren Bali spend two hours in a Washington, D.C.-area conference room listening to government officials, regulators, and representatives of for-profit higher education corporations discuss the morass of accreditation rules and federal regulations that make it hard for entrepreneurs to compete directly with traditional schools. Finally, Bali raised his hand and politely said, in effect, I don’t understand why any of this matters. I can go online right now and get everything I need to learn—courses, textbooks, videos, other students to study with—for free. And if I need to know what someone else has learned, I can look at their Linked-In profile or their blog to find out.
At a certain point, probably before this decade is out, that parallel universe will reach a point of sophistication and credibility where the degrees—or whatever new word is invented to mean “evidence of your skills and knowledge”—it grants are taken seriously by employers. The online learning environments will be good enough, and access to broadband Internet wide enough, that you won’t need to be a math prodigy like Eren Bali to learn, get a credential, and attract the attention of global employers. Companies like OpenStudy, Kno, Quizlet, Chegg, Inigral, and Degreed will provide all manner of supportive services—study groups, e-books, flash cards, course notes, college-focused social networking, and many other fabulous, as-yet-un-invented things. Bali isn’t just the model of the new ed tech entrepreneur—he’s the new global student, too, finally able to transcend the happenstance of where he was born.