Colleges without walls

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In fits and starts, universities in Arkansas have begun moving to on-line education to expand enrollment and increase revenue at sometimes lower cost. It's worked for proprietary schools after all.

More on this exploding topic today in the New York Times. And it's a new wrinkle, reminiscent of the dilemma that has faced news media in deciding whether to offer their work free on-line or for pay.

The article is about the rise of high-quality instruction available FREE.

Already, a handful of companies are offering elite college-level instruction — once available to only a select few, on campus, at great cost — free, to anyone with an Internet connection.

Moreover, these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, harness the power of their huge enrollments to teach in new ways, applying crowd-sourcing technology to discussion forums and grading and enabling professors to use online lectures and reserve on-campus class time for interaction with students.

The spread of MOOCs is likely to have wide fallout. Lower-tier colleges, already facing resistance over high tuition, may have trouble convincing students that their courses are worth the price. And some experts voice reservations about how online learning can be assessed and warn of the potential for cheating.

The thinking seems to be that if you can get 190,000 people worldwide to sign up for a free course, surely there's a way to turn that into money someday. Dead-tree newspapers, anyone?

“We’ve reached the tipping point where every major university is thinking about what they will do online,” said Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “In a way, the most important thing about these MOOCs from the top universities is that they provide cover, so other universities don’t need to apologize about putting courses online.”

You might recall that Dr. Donald Bobbitt, the University of Arkansas System president, wrote about on-line education in our ideas issue a while back.

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