Online education won’t replace traditional learning. Stanford professor Nick Parlante admitted himself, “Colleges are still going to be packed. They’re not all about lecturing; there’s still the community.” Yet, will online learning ever garner the same credibility, recognition and respect that a college degree is supposed to guarantee? Will you ever see edX on a résumé? And if you do, will the certification hold the same weight as a four-year Harvard or MIT diploma?
Parlante’s been teaching computer science at Stanford for over 20 years, and has re-worked his CS101 class into an online format with videos and live exercises — perfect for Coursera, where you can now find and take his course. To Parlante, shifting his material online was a no-brainer.
“Anyone who goes into teaching knows it’s not a big money maker,” Parlante says. “You need to be interested in helping people.”
Free online education is certainly helping people, and Parlante likens these new tools to Wikipedia, claiming that 10 years from now, what you’ll see is “very high quality education on all sorts of topics you can access easily.” What he also claims, however, is that instead of messing up education, online learning will only “give colleges the opportunity to be even better.”
Yet, what would force colleges to up the ante even more is if platforms like Coursera tested its students and could prove they were teaching them on the same level the brick and mortar schools were. Parlante says he could see testing force “middle tier colleges where everyone goes — the UC Davis’s of the world” to end up stepping up their game. Right now, a student could put Coursera classes on their résumé, but because anyone can cheat, some form of testing is necessary to vouch for credibility.
And here’s where platforms like Smarterer fit in. To CEO Jennifer Fremont-Smith, now it’s “less about where you went to school, and more about what you can do.” At Smarterer, Fremont-Smith can’t tell you where everyone went to college, but what she can tell you is that her team is talented. In her mind, in order for alternatives of traditional education to thrive, there needs to be a consistent assessment mechanism.
“We see ourselves as having a key role to play in that down the road as more of these alternative sources of learning become prevalent,” Fremont-Smith says.
Considering people look at the average résumé for 4.5 seconds, according to Fremont-Smith, Smarterer can provide a credible score and a tangible way for people to show what they know on their résumés. Smarterer enables users to prove over 500 professional skills, “including many that aren’t encompassed by traditional degrees.”
Steve Carson, the external relations director of MIT OpenCourseWare, has also noticed “there is a shift afoot from reputation-based credentials to evidence-based credentials.” To Carson, the difference boils down to, “I’m a great coder because I have a degree from (insert top name university here),” to “I’m a great coder, because you can look at my awesome code.” Although Carson admits the theory is not ideal in all fields, including medical, it is ideal in other skill-based disciplines.
Udacity is focused on those skill-based disciplines, offering courses covering Algorithms all the way to David Evans’s Intro to Computer Science class. Evans, a professor at the University of Virginia, agrees “it’s hard to replace all things a traditional university is doing well and can provide in the on-campus experience.” On the flip side, however, he also hopes that employers will, one day, value students who do well in Udacity courses. Which is why the Udacity team is talking to employers to ensure they will.
“We saw a need for lifelong learning that goes beyond being full-time college students,” Evans says. In today’s day and age, going to college for four years, getting a degree and spending the rest of your life working isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. What some want is ongoing education, or a method of alternative learning that proves to employers just how adept they are without having to pay for tuition or, at the end of the road, student loans.
Evans expects Udacity’s reputation to grow organically. “If employers find [Udacity students] to be successful and well prepared, that will build the reputation,” he says. “There’s a huge need for technical talent.”
Ben Nelson, CEO and founder of The Minerva Project, finds Udacity to be on the right track. At some point, he sees people opening their eyes and saying, “I can learn twice as much about computer science in less time, and people will hire me.” Udacity won’t say they’re teaching world class leaders or providing a well-rounded education, yet that’s not the point. The point is they’re out to teach a great vocation, or at least according to Nelson.
What Nelson points out is that students could get a C in every one of their classes at an Ivy League school like Harvard or Brown, yet still walk away with a Harvard or Brown degree. “What’s the difference between taking classes on Udacity?” he asks. “It’s $60,000 a year cheaper.” The only problem is it doesn’t have that name attached.
The Minerva Project will have its own reputation to build, as it looks to begin offering an “elite” education and compete with the Ivy League universities. “What matters is that you produce the most effective, powerful graduates in the world,” Nelson says, admitting that, that’s his goal. “The proof will be in the pudding. Our graduates will out perform.”
Once student loan debt surpassed one trillion dollars, it became clear the system needed a change. Online education has proven to be one of those changes, and as more alternatives to higher learning continue to crop up, employers will, hopefully, become more focused on a candidate’s skills than a candidate’s education.
The process is likely to be a slow one, however. When MIT OpenCourseWare was announced in 2001, who knew that in the years to come platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity and edX would bubble up? And while all of those new platforms seem effective, time will tell whether or not employers agree.
The quickest way to get them to agree is if there was evidence that what a job seeker learned online on an alternative learning site is just as credible as what they would learn sitting in a traditional classroom or going through a college’s online program. Smarterer will play a key role in this transition, and while the alternatives increase, Smarterer’s customer base will also increase, because that’s where employers will need to turn.
Alternative learning sites do have a role to play on a résumé, especially with the cost of higher education on the rise. All it appears to boil down to is time, meaning traditional schools will need to continue to strengthen their curriculum and prove why there’s a reason students still grace their campus.
But, what do you think? Can these avenues of learning be placed on the same playing field? Are they both equally as credible?