In today’s online world, who will fade out the fastest?

Anant Agarwal, the president of MIT and Harvard’s newest joint initiative edX, admits comparing the online platform to its partner institutions is like comparing a Toyota to a Ferrari. Using his reasoning, private institutions shouldn’t be worried.

Yet, Babson President Len Schlesinger has voiced his fears about state schools, saying, “My concern about the public institutions is that they’re becoming an afterthought of the state legislature of which they’re a part. There’s no question that our public institutions are being significantly threatened.”

Fitchburg State President Robert Antonucci doesn’t believe they’re being threatened, however. In fact, in a prior interview, he said, “I think, more and more, students are looking at the public schools today because of the economy.”

So, if state schools are safe, then who does that leave? If online learning’s going to make the Ivory Tower topple and threaten traditional education, it’s got to be replacing something, right?

Community colleges. They’ve got to be on the chopping block, right?

After all, community colleges saw an average 8.7 percent increase in tuition in 2011. Yet, here’s the thing — community college is still a bargain. The hike only brings full-time tuition up to about $3,000 a year. Sure, that’s $3,000 you can save by stringing together classes on Coursera or Udemy, but community college deans don’t all see massively open online courses (MOOCs) as a threat. One dean addressed the issue for Inside Higher Ed, writing:

Given the ways MOOCs work, they strike me as absolutely wonderful supplementary resources for students who are already taking classes. But outside of a small number of very high-achieving autodidacts, I don’t see them replacing what we do in their current form.

His argument rests primarily on the community college crowd. At that level, the core demographic is “the average student.” One whose K-12 preparation ranged from “decent” to “you probably shouldn’t even glance at my grades.” They’re the students who may show up with learning disabilities, or who study when compelled but aren’t checking into the library on foursquare every day. They’re the students who could benefit from additional help, but need the in-person assistance and motivation of a community college staff to push them along and help them succeed.

Community colleges have recently been recognized for stepping in to fill the “skills gap.” Despite what you’ve heard, there are jobs out there. The problem, however, is that there aren’t enough Americans trained to do them, which is why the Obama administration’s encouraged community colleges to better prepare their students, knowing those students can fill jobs ranging from health care to manufacturing and retail.

Those skills community colleges can bring to their students are hands-on, however. Something I don’t see MOOCs being able to teach. Sure, you can learn how to code online, but can you properly be taught to monitor someone’s heart rate or check vital signs? (For those who say, “Why not?” please let me know what hospital you’re working at so I can be sure not to check myself in.)

Beyond the benefits of a hands-on approach, community college can also, as the dean hinted at, keep students on track. A recent article in TIME suggested online education could actually widen the learning gap between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else. Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks points to research from the Department of Education, writing their study found that:

Students rarely learned as much from online courses as they did in traditional classes. In fact, the report found that the biggest benefit of online instruction came from a blended learning environment that combined technology with traditional methods, but warned that the uptick had more to do with the increased amount of individualized instruction students got in that environment, not the presence of technology. For all but the brightest, the more time students spend with traditional instruction, the better they seem to do.

If “for all but the brightest” is the “average student” community colleges attract, community colleges still have plenty to offer — arguably more to offer than the Internet can.

So, wait, if community college is safe, then who does that leave? No one. Online learning might be enhancing traditional education, but it’s not replacing it on any level, so stop asking.

Photo Courtesy of The Next Web