Earn it, by maintaining a 3.4 grade point average. That’s what students in Toledo are saying after the partnership between two Toledo High Schools and Buck Eye Cable Systems finalized today. Buckeye Cable Systems will be presenting 25 laptops to high achieving students at the Ohio schools, in an effort to shorten the digital divide, and raise the number of students in the High School taking college level courses. The laptops will be given to students in a dual enrollment program, which allows them to take classes on-line for college credit while still enrolled in high school. The laptops will have Internet installed at no charge by BuckEye CableSystems. Each laptop will cost about $1,000 USD and come pre-installed with all of the necessary software. Immediately after receiving the laptops, the students will be enrolled in an on-line sociology class at the University of Toledo. The school district claims studies have shown that at home Internet access plays a vital role in improving graduation rates.

80 percent of Americans have access to the internet at home, giving the majority of the country an untapped source of information that the minority can not reach. This program is stretching to bring closer that have’s and the have’s not by offering an opportunity to prove that when the playing field is evened, students from all walks of life can benefit greatly. The laptops will have to be returned as the course ends, but if proven effective, the program will pave the way for more students to receive free laptops. The Sociology class, which is offered to college freshmen at the University of Toledo, is worth 3 credits and usually costs 1,150 USD for tuition. The course description lists over 12 different softwares’ necessary to take part in on-line discussion forums, submit assignments, and take tests.

With the ever increasing popularity of distance learning, programs like Buckeye Cable Systems seem to be gaining popularity year after year. The Digital Divide, which refers to the gap between those who have dependable internet access and those who don’t, is something many organizations are trying to deal with. One main reason is that those with internet access are privy to an unlimited amount of specialized information where those without, more or less, are living in the past. Last week, in Maryland, a school was granted 400,000 dollars for a Digital Learning Fund, which aims to put a tablet in every students hand. In Minnesota the week before, a snow day was combated by Internet distance learning and the school was able to count the work, that was done on-line, as credible. Despite the students moaning about how they were cheated out of their snow day, authorities at the school have committed to the snow day plan, for every snow day to come. The program in Toledo required that all students had to have a teacher sponsor them as well as parental permission. Once these were completed, the students then had to write an essay for the program, become hand selected, and complete an Internet safety course”

online university - distance learningSemester online is a brand-new approach to online education. While many universities are turning to the power of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to lower costs while raising enrollment, Semester Online uses a completely different method. Classes are capped at approximately 20 students, using live video conferences, online chat, self-paced coursework and a collaborative online community to recreate the settings of a physical university. This is online education for the student concerned that they will be lost in a sea of faceless names in the online setting, the student concerned that online education will be sub-par compared to the physical setting, and even for students tired of being in 200 person classrooms where they have no way of forming a real connection with their professors.

What makes Semester Online so different from other online university programs is that this program is trying to provide all of the benefits of in person learning, including face to face, spontaneous discussion and even the option for the professor to place students in small groups for discussion and group work. Semester Online is an attempt to bring reputable education to those who have had to put education on hold for other commitments, allowing busy students to take courses at the rate they want.

But recreating the intimate classroom setting and traditional student teacher relationship does not come without a cost. The 11 institutions have sacrificed the ability to offer their courses at low prices by limiting their classrooms to only 20 people, and credits are $750 each for the summer session and $1,400 per credit in the spring session. That’s $2,250 per course in the summer, and $4,200 in the Spring. Looking at the high costs of this program, the goal is made abundantly clear: this is not an attempt to bring prestigious education to the masses (which, incidentally, would devalue degrees from tough to get into universities), but to bring higher cost, high quality education to the modern student, who may be working or have family commitments that would preclude them from attending institutions in person.

So which 11 institutions are involved in this program? In alphabetical order: Boston College (US), Brandeis University (US), Emory University (US), The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (US), Trinity College (Ireland), the University of Melbourne (Australia), the University of Notre Dame (US), Wake Forest University (US), Washington University (US). The credits are earned at the university that offers each specific course, and can then be transferred to a students home university. Of course, students must check with their home university to ensure that credits are transferable, especially with out of country institutions. Courses include eco-sustainability, forensics, psychology, computer science, molecular genetics, among others seen in the catalog found here. Currently, there are 24 courses offered.

At this time, the limited course catalog means that Semester Online is not the answer for someone who wants to take a degree online. It is a program which is designed to let students continue in academics even when working and take courses not offered by their institution. Semester Online is exactly what it’s name bills it as: a semester, not a full degree.
It seems incredible that an institution such as Trinity College, Dublin, which was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth 1 of England would now be offering courses online. A lot changed in 400 years! Semester Online is brand new, so it remains to be seen if it can achieve its goal “to create a world-class online educational experience that is equal in quality and rigor to the on-campus experience.” While Semester Online is not helping to lower tuition costs or to make online education more available in terms of numbers, it is making education more attainable to those who are unable to attend class physically but do not want to put their education on hold. If you want to learn more about Semester Online, you can check out their official website.

A recent article by Dr. Sky Gilbert, research chair in creative writing and theatre studies at the University of Guelph, offers some critical thought and questions for those considering online education. His main point is that true learning is best achieved through spontaneous discussion in a physical classroom, stating that “We don’t learn unless we can interact with others, unless we have real conversations and real experiences”.

Dr. Gilbert’s article is passionate and emotional. He cites the “excitement and disappointment, the frustration and fury, of involved discussion,” as critical for learning. And while I would argue that online discussions can be just as heated as in person discussions, he does have a point about the spontaneity of discussion. Online education has made leaps forward in becoming more involved, with universities creating their programs to have interactive elements and discussion boards. However, interacting from behind a screen offers a more detached learning experience, providing a wall not only between the student and teacher, but also between the students themselves.

As a professor of creative writing and theatre, it is easy to see where Dr. Gilbert gets his viewpoint. He is teaching in a medium which thrives on engagement. Writing and acting are emotional and powerful art forms where practitioners put a part of themselves into the works they create. For creative studies, it is easy to see how the detachment of online education is a huge drawback.

But what happens when you take away emotion and subjectivity? There is no right answer in writing, but there is certainly a correct answer in mathematics and hard sciences. While this is purely anecdotal, I have friends with math degrees whom professors saw only on the first day of class and the final exam. The emotional, involved class discussion is less of a tool in objective studies.

Online education is not for everyone. While some students do thrive on discussions and spontaneity, there are those who prefer a more analytical approach. Online discussion boards offer the shy a chance to contribute, instead of being drowned out by the confident and boisterous in class. While people learn from having their ideas challenged, and grow from debate, the advantages of online educations are simply greater in some fields. The ability to offer courses to more students for less cost, the tools that online learning gives access to and the way that technology keeps evolving makes online learning promising for a well-educated future.

Dr. Gilbert is also concerned with the comodification of information. Search engines are built for profit, and Dr. Gilbert is worried that the “information”, which he adds quotation marks to, is information paid for by the highest bidder. Students in arts and social science programs are going to deal with loaded information and knowledge with hidden goals in their daily life. To say that information provided by a search engine is less valuable than information provided by a researcher concerned with his career or working for a think tank, which students are exposed to in a BA of Social Sciences program, is too simplistic. Students in arts programs will have to learn to critical understand knowledge and to search for their biases and purposes regardless of where they are getting the information, and while the professor student relationship offers a chance to cultivate these tools, too often are professors preaching their own ideologies rather than searching for the truth.

Yes, discussion is important. But insinuating that online education is less valuable than traditional education is too general. While there are many programs that benefit greatly from spontaneous interaction, there are just as many that do not. And when students are trying to fit in education with their busy lives, in today’s job market where a degree is seen so often as a necessity rather than an asset, when rising tuition costs are saddling students with back breaking debt, I welcome the spread of online education as a way to make education more accessible.

Online education is making strides forward to create more discussion, more interactivity, and more spontaneity. But can it ever replace physical learning as the zenith of education? I would love to hear the thoughts of students who are currently in online learning. Dr. Gilbert brings up some valid criticisms and thoughts on online education, and his point of view is essential to the evolving education system of the future. You can read his original opinion article here.

It’s no secret that the United Arabs Emirate is swimming in oil money. Universities around the world compete for foreign students, including those from the UAE which has just released a list of universities it recommends for E-learning. This could mean big bucks for the universities on the list, of which the majority are in the United Kingdoms (46). Oxford, Cambridge, and the London school of Economics top the list, but other countries are represented as well, including the US (36), Australia (20), and New Zealand (5).

This is all new, as the UAE did not formerly recognize other forms of learning, including self-study, correspondence learning, remote learning, and e-learning. It is possible that the infancy of degree equivalency program for online universities is why there are so few universities currently accredited, including none in Canada or all of Asia. What stopped universities from making the list? In order to be considered, e-learning has to be interactive, explained UAE minister Saif Rashid Al Mazrouei. As well, the courses need to be created specifically for online learning, be of equal or greater length than the traditional degree program, and be recognized by the country that the university is operating within.

The growing trend for online universities growing legitimacy is hinged on big names like Oxford and Harvard offering e-learning programs, and the recognition of e-learning as equally valid education by the UAE is a big step forward for online universities. College and university tuition is often double or triple for foreign students (as post-secondary is subsidized by federal, state, and provincial taxes) and thus are a gold-mine for institutions. Growing equivalency is just one more reason for universities to offer online programs and to expand their student body.

The University of Florida Online is another welcome addition to the ever-growing world of fully online education. It bills itself as the “first fully online four-year bachelor’s degree offered by a leading national research university”, and the respected name of University of Florida offers an online degree with weight. UF Online doesn’t just appeal to the busy life and technological focus of today’s student: it’s also cheaper than traditional learning. UF Online is bringing the savings it gets from online education right to the students who are becoming jaded with ever-present rises in the cost of education. The truth of today’s employment world is a vicious cycle: more and more jobs require a university degree while the cost of a degree keeps rising.

Just how much cheaper is UF Online? For a Florida resident, you can expect to pay $129.18 per credit hour, including fees. The standard rate is $208.77 per credit hour if you attend the brick and mortar institution. That’s nearly 40% less for the online degree. Now, this is talking Undergraduate degrees, such as a business degree – prices are higher for graduate studies. Keep in mind of course that there are other costs to consider. To access online courses, you are going to need a trusted, reliable internet connection and a relatively good laptop computer. If you have already invested in both of these, then they are a sunk cost and online education becomes even more appealing.

The one disheartening reality of the current education system is that if you are an out of state student, you are going to be paying more. A lot more. For a standard online degree, UF Online calculates tuition and fee costs as $1,938 for a semester. Out of state? Prepare to add a whopping $6,352 to your fees. This is disheartening considering that it prohibits the full number of students from all over the US (and heck, the world) who would otherwise be able to access this education at the more reasonable rate.

UF online promises the same level of education as the brick and mortar institution. Their promise is as follows: The curriculum, quality of faculty, and reputation of the degree are identical.” While UF Online is among the frontrunners of online degrees, it is a big claim to make. I would argue that while it is possible to offer an equal degree of quality online, you have to take into consideration a student’s learning style and personality when going into a 4 year degree. For some, the physical campus offers a way to feel connected and to get involved in clubs, groups, and networking that can help find lifelong friends and career connections. I was extremely pleased to see the “Resource” section of their website, which offers academic support and ways to connect with the university. I personally cannot offer a judgement of the quality of UF Online, as I am not a student there.

University of Florida is responding to a demand. Youth especially are realizing that jobs require more and more education and that if they want to juggle their busy personal lives, work lives and family lives, the schedules offered by brick and mortar institutions don’t always cut it. I have respect for UF Online for passing along savings in education that they receive from offering online courses to students in the way of a 40% cheaper education. It’s a welcome sight to see, and online education could be a way to fight the problem of rising education costs that is a reality of the western world. Want more info on UF Online? Check out their official website.

SUNY, or The State University of New York is a massive educational institution with 64 campuses in New York. They are seeking to expand their reach into the online education field, targeting students with rigorous schedules, those who do not mesh well with traditional brick and mortar institutions, and those who simply seek the convenience and self-driven model of online learning. Open SUNY, which is the title of the newly unveiled online education program, is marketed for the aspiring professional of today who needs to find a way to fit education into their busy lives in an effort for career advancement.

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher spoke for her university in the annual 2014 SUNY State of the University address where she spoke of the principles allowing SUNY to aid New York in facing the issues and challenges of the 21st century. One focus of her address was the emphasis on innovation and technology, values which have allowed the SUNY impressive inroads with SUNY research leading to 59 patents, 218 Invention Disclosures, and $8.8 Million USD in royalties for the year of 2013 alone. It is no surprise that a University that has seen such success in their intellectual property would focus on online education as a way to expand their reach.

Nancy Zimpher cited research that New York would require 1 million new Bachelor Degrees for the workforce by 2025 and highlighted the challenges to providing SUNY’s education system to a wider audience. While this research might come as a surprise to those with a Bachelor’s degree who are looking for work, it is tied in with the growing trend of jobs that in the past only require a high school diploma now requiring post-secondary education.

The limitation of brick and mortar education systems is their reach. The fact is, you can only fit so many bodies in a classroom. Zimpher, with excitement in her voice, outlined her plan for furthering online learning programs. Online education through SUNY began as a program in 2012, and had the ambitious goal to “expand the program by 100,000 students within 3 years.”

Zimpher understands the problems that potentially occur with online education, including the tendency for online students to drop out or be unable to finish their courses. She allays these fears by citing the enormous education infrastructure in the form of academic support systems that a large scale education body such as SUNY is able to draw on in order to bring a high quality education system. How does SUNY hope to achieve this lofty goal? The answer is the “size and magnitude” of the project which is highlighted as differentiating it from online university initiatives offered by other institutions. Open SUNY offers a way for students to access the resources of all 64 campuses controlled by the SUNY organization.

The reason for Open SUNY is framed as allowing a greater number of New Yorkers to gain higher education, citing the future as increasingly following the trend of requiring a bachelor degree for jobs that in the past would only require a high school diploma. Zimpher sees online education as the solution in order to ensure that New Yorkers get the education they need. While the debate on whether jobs should require post-secondary education and the advantages that a university has if a degree is seen as essential are heated and contentious, putting the moral aspect of it to the side for a second and understanding the reality of the situation makes it clear that a bachelor’s degree is becoming more and more required for white collar jobs, and that an online education can be the most convenient, or even the only possible way of gaining a post-secondary education when juggling a job, family, and other commitments.

If you would like to see the state of the University address yourself, you can skip to the 40 minute mark where online education is addressed. It is great to see the energy and excitement in Zimpher’s voice as she discusses the expansion of the online program, and it is hard to convey in words just how passionate she is. For more information on the Open SUNY project, you can visit the official website.

Michigan State is offering a non-credit writing MOOC (massive open online course) targeted towards students preparing for post-secondary writing requirements, ESL students looking to work on their English, and professionals looking for a chance to hone their craft. This course, called “Thinking Like a Writer”, will be taught by professor and chair of Michigan State University Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture Jeff Grabil in partnership with Director of First-Year Writing at Michigan State Julie Lindquist free of charge.

Improving English and writing skills is often done most successfully through interactive methods with plenty of instruction and help from peers with the editing and revising process. Michigan State will be using a system called Eli Review, which allows students to interact with each other and their professors on a massive scale and in real time, providing suggestions and reviews to each others drafts. A look on the Facebook page shows some confusion or perhaps technical errors in the course. At least two students seem to be posting their assignments there as they are having access issues with the online system being used to administer the course. Considering that the course runs from July 1 to Aug 31, it is no surprise that they are working out the kinks.

The course is offered free, and appears to be functioning as a working course as well as an experiment in online learning for Michigan State, perhaps before they delve into for-credit courses for the humanities. While Michigan State University offers 3 other MOOCs, this is the first in the field of humanities. This course is offered in partnership with MSUglobal, which is a future oriented entrepreneurial unit in the Office of the Provost at Michigan State. This unit is engaged in developing, implementing, and funding new initiatives in higher education.

Humanities have always been a struggle for online learning. While it is easy to automate a program to grade concrete, empirical answers to the 2+2 type questions of mathematics and even fields such as computer programing where a correct answer can be graded, it is very difficult for a computer to be able to discern whether an analysis of Shakespeare has been created by a talented student or a pair of monkeys on a typewriter. This is perhaps a part of the reason that Michigan University is offering a course based mostly on the editing and review process, as they will be able to have students evaluate each other through the Eli review system.

One thing is for sure, this is a course for the modern age. With a Facebook page, Twitter account and Youtube videos, Michigan University is using the tools of social media to the best of its abilities to attract new students.

The reputation of a top-tier university. The massive distribution network of massive open online courses. The real world legitimacy of a tech giant. When you combine the three, you shake the higher education world to its foundations. Georgia Tech, in partnership with Udacity and AT&T wants to expand the ranks of its Master of Science in Computer Science Degree program from some 300 students to 10,000 as a long term goal. How can they do this? Georgia Tech sees a huge opportunity. The demand for STEM field graduates has outstripped the pool of available students, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer a way to bring a respectable degree to an exponentially increased pool of students. The opportunity was ripe, and it was only a matter of time before a reputable university took the plunge and offered a fully online Masters degree.

Why Computer Science? If you understand how MOOCs work, then the announcement of an online comp sci degree comes as no surprise. MOOCs thrive on objective subjects such as sciences and mathematics where there is a right or wrong answer. This allows for automated assessment and marking of students work, saving time and ultimately money for the university. And while these technologies are not fully developed (Georgia Tech expects a large portion of tuition fees to be used to fund research and development of automated assessment technology), these developments in conjunction with saving money on classroom space and profs mean that tuition fees are much more accessible. In fact, all of the courses are offered free, but if you want accreditation and a nice new degree from Georgia Tech, you will have to cough up about seven grand. When compared with the current price tag of $40,000 for the “brick and mortar” degree, you can see why this is huge news for the higher education world.

When people think of online degrees, the first thought they get in their head is degree mills. Shady universities printing out worthless degrees accredited by their parent companies and laughed at by real world companies. While it remains to be seen how corporations will view Georgia Tech Masters degrees that are fully online, the fact that they have a strong reputation and the backing of a major corporation bodes well for the legitimacy of online education. AT&T is a household name. Their partnership with Georgia Tech and Udacity shows that a major corporation not only respects a fully online degree but wants to be a major player in making such degrees happen. In addition from providing legitimacy, the partnership offers Georgia Tech a huge resource in their Comp Sci degree. Corporate projects will be offered for course credit, and real world guest instructors who have proved themselves in the industry will offer tutelage.

What’s the catch? MOOCs have a low retention rate at the moment. Often students seem to lose motivation and give up. The Georgia Tech FAQ for OMSCS (online Masters of Science in Computer Science) puts the retention rates of MOOCs at 4%. This is where Udacity comes in. Georgia Tech feels they can pull the rate close to 100%. Check out this quote on the official faq:”Udacity provides human services in the form of student mentoring. In past classes, we found that the Udacity formula can attain 100 percent retention, compared to less than 4 percent for a conventional MOOC.”

What does this show? Maybe humans are conditioned to learn from their peers and mentors face to face. Maybe when you sit at home in your pyjamas with a nice cup of coffee its easy to be distracted by the endless instant gratification of the internet. Maybe we are team animals, and need to form groups to succeed. Or maybe Georgia Tech realizes that human interaction is one of the key components of a successful online degree, and the $7,000 price tag is enough to pay for the resources needed to get degrees completed.

This is a complicated time for higher education. Tuition is skyrocketing, and more and more jobs are considering a BA now what a high school degree would have been worth back in the day. With this in mind, universities are cutting costs by offering distance learning programs. So what is the difference between online university distance programs and MOOCs? It’s simply a matter of scale. Universities can charge huge tuition fees because they are exclusive. If they see that their program is being undermined or diluted by the amount of students that can be taught through MOOCs, they will not create programs of their own. However, if they see that students are flocking towards Georgia Tech fully online Masters, they will get dollar signs in their eyes and pump out degrees themselves.

It’s an exciting time. September 2014 could very well usher in a new era of online education, at least for objective fields such as the STEM fields. On the other hand, it could show that companies are more interested in knowing that a student went through the traditional degree process. That’s the question on everyone’s mind- will companies discriminate against fully online degrees or will they finally attain the legitimacy of traditional degrees?

Udacity, Georgia Tech and AT&T have partnered together to offer a fully online Master of Science in Computer Science degree at a fraction of the normal cost starting September 2014. Udacity, a MOOC (massive open online course), is the system which will allow Georgia Tech to offer a top-tier degree to an exponentially larger pool of students. While there has not been an announced official program cost yet, the total cost is expected to be under $7,000, compared to the $40,000 cost of the traditional degree program. When you combine these numbers with the long-term Georgia Tech estimation of 10,000 students enrolled in a program that used to count only hundreds in its numbers, you can see why this is huge news for the world of higher education.

It was only a matter of time for a top-tier university in the technological field to capitalize on the distribution platform of massive open online courses. Fields such as Computer Science are almost entirely objective, meaning that there is a right or wrong answer. This allows the majority of student work to be automatically graded and evaluated.While automation is a huge cost cutting and time-saving measure, the technologies for grading students on such a huge scale are not fully developed yet. Georgia Tech is expecting to be “using a significant portion of the tuition fee to support the scaling of student evaluation through such technologies.”

Will businesses discriminate between those who receive the fully online Masters and those who obtain the traditional on campus degree? Georgia Tech fully believe in the value of online education, however admits that there are certain factors that cannot be replicated by an online degree, such as close faculty-student interaction. While Georgia Tech admits there are differences, they stress that there will be an equal workload as well as academic honesty with national proctoring standards being used. The fact that AT&T is a partner in the venture is huge, as it shows that a goliath technology company not only views the degrees as legitimate, but fully supports them. In addition to quenching fears that online degrees are less valuable than their traditional counterparts, this will allow Georgia Tech access to guest instructors from the private sector and give students the opportunity to work on corporate projects for university credit.

It is hard to predict the future of MOOCs along with top-tier universities. While subjective fields such as Computer Science and Mathematics are conducive to the massive open online course format, it would be difficult to offer Bachelor of Arts degrees which focus on essay writing and diverse perspectives. As well, universities may wait to see if prospective students and businesses view the Georgia Tech Masters Degree as undermined by their widened enrollment. While on one hand the exclusivity of Universities add to their prestige, the demand for useful, marketable degree programs at an affordable price gives huge weight in the favor of expanded fully online degrees to a wider number of students.

Here’s a quick tip… There are many services that let you fill out financial aid forms to apply for aid for school. But if they charge you, go somewhere else. If you are filling out the FAFSA for financial aid for college, make sure to do it on FAFSA.ed.gov, which is free, and NOT on FAFSA.com, which charges $80 for the same service. Many people mistakenly go to the latter, not realizing that this is a federal service, paid for by the government, and therefore it is a free service. The more you know…