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Turn On, Log In and Graduate: Online Solutions to Student Debt Crisis

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My two sons aren't even in kindergarten yet, and college is looking terrifyingly expensive. As countless American students and their parents are well aware, there is a national crisis forming with our younger generation getting crushed by growing college debt. With tuition at some schools now exceeding $50,000 a year and overall student debt nearly tripling during the past decade, colleges will soon be compelled to find innovative ways to make degrees more affordable.

An open secret is that when it comes to the average learning process, there is very little that takes place in a huge lecture hall that cannot be replicated on a laptop. Paying thousands of dollars a semester to cram into a crowded lecture hall with a thousand other to receive the distilled knowledge of a tenured professor doesn't make much sense when the same lectures can be accessed online.

Meanwhile, online learning is exploding in its depth, variety, and accessibility, in part due to the proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's). You can actually take an MIT course online for free on the EdX website or a Stanford class at no cost by logging on Coursera. In the world of lecture halls and dorms, four years at MIT will run you about a quarter of a million dollars.

Granted, online coursework may not look as good on a resume as a diploma, but this could be changing. While unemployment rates remain higher for non-graduates than for graduates, most can agree that a traditional college degree no longer confers the same benefit it once did. As Caryn McTighe Musil of the American Association of Colleges and Universities has said, "A bachelor's is what a high school diploma used to be."

And the prestige associated with a bachelor's is largely confined to the colleges and universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report. As Clay Shirky notes, "The entire list, about 250 colleges, educates fewer than 25 percent" of American students. There are about 20 million students and 4500 degree-granting institutions in America, and the other 15 million students receive degrees that are far less prestigious, but still expensive compared to the price tag at Coursera.

With that in mind, MOOC purveyors have had the presence of mind to get into credentialing and that is the business model that companies such as Udacity are based upon. Udacity started when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun boldly took his graduate-level artificial intelligence course online, and 160,000 people signed up, of whom 23,000 completed the course. Although it was just a 14 percent completion rate, it represented more than three times Stanford's undergraduate enrollment. So Thrun left Stanford and launched Udacity, a for-profit online educational company that now offers two dozen courses, mostly in computer science and math. Anyone can take the courses for free, but to earn certification for course completion, you have to pay a fee and pass a final exam.

By focusing on the ways in which online tools can best serve the instructional and financial needs of students, colleges now have a wealth of options to choose from. There is no reason for them to fear this technology because some of the most rewarding parts of the college experience -- the small seminars, midnight conversations, poetry jams, improv comedy shows, happy hours with professors -- cannot be duplicated online. They only happen when a group of people who are passionate about learning happen to be in the same room at the same time.

Online learning can effectively provide some of the aspects of a college education coupled with the ultimate promise of greater affordability. Employed properly, some online lectures may even provide a better learning experience than just being a face in a crowded auditorium. In the near future, there will hopefully be fewer and fewer obstacles for students who would like to pursue an affordable college degree from a traditional institution that is earned primarily online.

As a teacher, I have mixed feelings about online learning. I love teaching -- but having tried teaching purely online courses, I just don't like it that much. I thrive on the atmosphere of the classroom, the debates with students, and the fun of pursuing hard questions about the world together. At the same time, I recognize that something is profoundly broken in higher education -- and online learning is a piece of the puzzle that could point to a solution.