Virtual Universities

The rise of virtualma maters.

NUVO Magazine: Virtualma Mater

Illustration by Mark Reynolds.

Have and have-not: in the post-industrial age, the border between the two will not be defined by wealth or bloodline, but by education—by what initials you’re entitled to put behind your name, and what income you’re able to extract from them.

Post-secondary education is by no means a guarantee of social mobility, but it is a calling card. There’s only one problem: not everyone can afford it. Since 1990, tuition fees for a four-year bachelor’s degree in Canada have risen by 6.2 per cent per year—triple the rate of inflation. Little wonder that the average graduate leaves school about 27 grand in the hole.

Such problems may be a thing of the past. A collection of new virtual universities is now offering top-tier education for a considerably lower price—namely, free. By taking massive open online courses (MOOCs), you might not need a trust fund or a rich uncle for that Ivy League education you’ve set your eyes on. All you’ll need is a broadband connection.

To be fair, the idea isn’t entirely new. The first university to offer degrees to those living far from its hallowed halls was the University of London back in 1858. Closer to the present day, distance-education pioneers have used radio, TV, and good ol’ fashioned snail mail to teach students in the farthest reaches of the globe.

A trio of institutions is responsible for the new “Virtual U” concept. Udacity was the first of these to gain popularity, founded as an offshoot of the free computer science courses offered by Stanford University. Coursera was next: structured as a collective, it offers courses from more than 33 institutions from around the world, including two from Canada—the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. A non-profit venture from Harvard and MIT called edX was founded soon after, with over $60-million in seed capital.

As is fitting of virtual university, most of the course offerings have thus far focused on computers and related sciences: software engineering, cryptography, artificial intelligence, and the like. But the curriculum is expanding. Several institutions are beginning to offer upper-level humanities courses and other disciplines are following suit. As of right now, most of these offerings don’t have prerequisites or entrance exams. The only thing required is time and an open mind.

Judging by the enrolment numbers, low-cost higher education is an idea whose time has come. To take just one example, in its first four months of operation, Coursera’s online offerings drew more than one million users—a faster uptake than either of the two social media heavyweights, Facebook and Twitter. As of December of last year, more than 70,000 new freshmen were joining Coursera’s virtual campus every week.

Far from a drawback, such numbers seem to be part of the attraction. While Physics 101 students may complain about being packed liked sardines into gargantuan lecture halls, online learning has embraced the masses. Collaboration, sharing, and interaction—both with one’s professor and with one’s peers—are baked into the syllabus. Forums and video chat rooms encourage discussion and debate. In many courses, students have the ability to engage in real-time dialogue and provide feedback on each other’s comments.

Evaluation remains something of a work-in-progress. Most courses offer some form of ongoing grading, ranging from embedded online quizzes at the end of a given course module to essays to full-on exams. Some professors have recruited students into the effort, encouraging them to grade and comment on their classmates’ work. Not that it seems to matter much anyway: administrators estimate only about five per cent of MOOC students follow the course through completion.

So what does the online revolution do to traditional universities? Tough to say. No doubt the appeal of the Virtual U owes much to its cost. Whether it can remain a tuition-free zone, however, is an open question. So far, the innovators have refrained from charging tuition, turning instead to content licensing, revenue sharing on textbooks, and data mining (referring Silicon Valley recruiters to top-of-the-class engineering students is one example) to pay the bills. Other possibilities may exist: while it has thus far balked at offering a full degree, Coursera offers a special verified certificate for the modest cost of $30 to $100 per course.

Still, it doesn’t take a PhD in economics to understand that such institutions pose a serious threat to the hundreds of second-tier schools, community colleges, and state-sponsored institutions. With education from world-renowned instructors and top-tier schools available to anyone in the world for free, why would anyone bother paying for it?

Many will applaud such change. Still, university is an elitist institution: the fact that not everybody can get initials behind his or her name is part of what makes those initials valuable. In this way, MOOCs challenge more than the price of a traditional university education—they challenge its value. Student loans aside, what happens when upper-level calculus, genetics, literature, or electrical engineering courses are open to anybody and everybody, without proof of either present ability or prior achievement? What does that say to people who have actually made the effort to ace the SAT, to pull the all-nighter, to cram for the exam in order to get the credentials? In an age of democracy, these are difficult, perhaps heretical questions. Then again, unpopular ideas, contrary opinions, radical points of view—isn’t that what university’s all about?