That particular vision is not likely to be realized anytime soon, but some colleges are thinking along similar lines. Several universities, including MIT, Penn, and Boston University, recently started a type of online degree called a “MicroMasters” as a way for students to begin work on a graduate degree without committing to a years-long program. Students who do well and pass a set of proctored exams earn a MicroMasters, equal to somewhere between a quarter and a half of of a typical master’s degree. Top performers can then apply for slots in a full master’s program from the universities, to be worked toward in-person; if accepted, they would be only a semester or two away from finishing a full master’s degree. When MIT launched its MicroMasters, in 2015, it expected 200,000 students would enroll across all programs; within the first nine months, more than 1.3 million people signed up.
Such physical-digital experimentation can even alter the experiences of students already enrolled at physical college campuses. For example, 75 percent of the 56,000 undergraduates at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, took at least one online class at the school last year, even as they were enrolled in face-to-face courses. (Another 10 percent took a hybrid course, a mix between online and face-to-face.) Nearly a third of the university’s classes take place online, which officials say has eliminated the need to build at least five additional classroom buildings.
For now, though, most short-term or blended-learning programs exist not at universities but in the professional world, with companies running ongoing programs to train their current workers. And, here too, the division between online and face-to-face learning is thinning.
Take Xerox, for example. In the 1970s, the company opened a sprawling campus in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to train its workforce. Some 1,800 employees came through the facility in any given week for classes. But Xerox sold the campus in 2000, when it began to move its professional-development courses online. It now mixes face-to-face training with more than 10,000 short online videos and other on-demand reference materials. John Leutner, the longtime head of global learning at Xerox who retired in 2016, told me that this arrangement saves the company money and also improves retention because workers can learn on their own time and at their own pace.
Companies also regularly turn to outside help instead of training workers themselves. Employer-financed programs account for about half of the business of General Assembly, a firm that holds classes for coding and other skills. The company can customize its curriculum for companies’ most immediate needs—“unlike in the past when companies sent someone off to a university for graduate school,” said Charlie Schilling, the general manager of the enterprise business at General Assembly. He added, “Someone can take an assessment on a Friday, sit through a part-time data-science class in a week or two weeks depending on their flexibility, and immediately return to their job and do things in new ways.” It is, in a sense, a sped-up version of the open-loop university dreamt up by those Stanford designers.
As the economy continues to ask more and more of workers, it is unlikely that most campuses will be able to afford to expand their physical facilities to keep up with demand. At the same time, online degrees haven’t been able to gain the market share, or in some cases the legitimacy, that their proponents expected. Perhaps a blending of the physical and the digital is the way forward for both.