By Jill Rooney
What does the future look like for online college students? With the explosion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) -- including today's announcement of U.C. Berkeley joining edX, and Coursera adding courses from 12 universities, including CalTech and Duke -- the one fact we can say for certain is that online higher education is here to stay.
These are not just big names being added together: the numbers also tell the story. More than 6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, according to a Babson survey [PDF] for the Sloan Consortium.
While some wonder whether this is the end of traditional higher education, others are considering what an average college student's life will be like in the future. In his Atlantic article Selling the College Experience to Students Who Take Classes Online, Conor Friedersdorf imagines a future in which savvy colleges and universities take advantage of new technologies to expand their operations across the country through virtual branches. Theoretically, these branches would offer some physical locations, where elite colleges could “leverage a respected brand into a profitable events business.”
He provides a description of “Yale West,” in which students in southern California could take advantage of networking possibilities such as “the monthly cocktail hour at the Soho House in West Hollywood, the group surfing lessons offered each summer in Huntington Beach, the ongoing lecture series, and the promise of a Culver City based student recreation center and study hall.”
Another such prediction Friedersdorf posits, just a couple years away:
The University of California decides on a new push to integrate its distance learning students into locally based intramural sports, a Web based student newspaper, and locally based black, Latino, and LGBT supporters, for starters. Go to a soccer field in San Diego on a Saturday and you might find students enrolled at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz, but living in Mission Beach, squaring off against one another, and later that night watching a highlight of the match that someone captured on a smart-phone and uploaded to the University of California Extension Learning Gazette.
Such a reality might resolve one of the more frustrating contradictions of campus life for many undergraduates: being confined to campus environs narrows students' experiences to only that specific region and prescribed lifestyle. A more broadly interpreted definition of the idea of a “campus” could turn the whole world into a learning environment. A college experience rooted in online courses that take advantage of all the possibilities of program enrichment that exist within larger communities could benefit students in untold ways.