The problem is that many in the business of higher education hate the idea. It's disruptive to the traditional model and profoundly threatening to the current economics of the academic industry. The elite schools have embraced the online world because it allows them to use the power of their brand to extend everywhere. But many community colleges find the prospect more challenging, as it could well undermine their mission and the need for them. One critic quoted in a recent New Yorker described what might happen:
Imagine you're at South Dakota State and they're cash-strapped, and they say, 'Oh! There are these Harvard courses. We'll hire an adjunct for three thousand dollars a semester, and we'll have the students watch this TV show.' Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly. Eventually, that dwindling is going to make it to larger and less poverty-stricken universities and colleges.
Unquestionably, the next wave of online education will disrupt. It will threaten faculty and colleges, but it will empower students. Yes, we are a few years away from online courses providing degrees and credentials that will be seen by the marketplace as adequate. For now, taking courses online may enrich your life, but it will not provide the entrée into jobs requiring a degree, whether associate's or bachelor's. Many fields of graduate study will be untouched, but many others - law, accounting and others - are ripe for online credentializing.
Having spent almost a decade as a graduate student and professor, I was always struck by how resistant to change and questioning academic cabals could be. The growth of online education is yet another example. Many are embracing it, and many are resisting it because it represents change to a world that often moves at the pace of medieval guilds.
The beneficiaries, however, are students, which really means all of us. The costs of obtaining needed credentials will plummet, and the ability to create more tailored, vocational programs aligned with the skills employers need will increase exponentially. That will likely lead to some shrinkage in the number of physical institutions offering degrees, but an increase in the number of people obtaining them. It will also mean that those taking on debt - especially at elite schools - will be those most likely to be able to bear those debts, while those who need more specific and vocational education for decently paid but not high-paying jobs will not be saddled with loans out of proportion to their earning potential.
This online educational revolution is the next wave, and it is still very early. Rarely has a societal problem been presented with such an ideal solution. We should embrace it passionately, because it's happening whether we do or not.
"The Edgy Optimist" column is initially published at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.