Will the Internet put universities out of business?

by: Amy Clancy Updated:

More than half of recent college graduates in Washington state enter the stiff job market more than $20,000 in debt. But now, many universities are launching online courses, some even for free.

Starting this fall, the University of Washington in Seattle will offer a degree in early childhood education and family studies, completely online.  When the announcement was made, the UW touted its “low cost” of $7,000 a year.

The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia, recently hit an online milestone. More than one million students have enrolled in its "Coursera" program, which offers free, non-credit classes to anyone with Internet access.

Classes such as “Coursera” are called "MOOCs," or Massive Open Online Courses.  Schools aren't making money on MOOCs yet, but Alex Tabarrok, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, believes most brick-and-mortar universities will someday be a thing of the past.  “I think a lot of universities are going to be in trouble,” he told KIRO 7 Eyewitness News reporter Amy Clancy.  Tabarrok created his own non-accredited online economics school, called Marginal Revolution University, and believes “there’s no reason, online, the very best professors in the world can’t teach 100,000 students.”

The online model is already working for Rodney Perryman, a retired Navy veteran who just received his Bachelors, then his Masters degrees, from Brandman University.  Brandman was recently voted the second-best online program for veterans in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. And Perryman said once he had those degrees on his resume, much better job offers started coming his way, including a six-figure salary he actually turned down. 

“Somebody called me, looking for a QA (Quality Assurance) guy offering a lot of money,” he told Clancy.  “A whole lot more than I’m making now, but I’m happy where I’m at.”  Perryman continued, “Nowadays, the online degrees are getting a little more respect than they used to.”

A Brandman degree isn't free, unless you qualify for the GI Bill, like Perryman. But it's primarily-online curriculum is definitely flexible, especially for students who have to juggle careers and families with college.  According to Perryman, “You can be on at three in the morning, eight at night, six o’clock in the morning.  Whenever you want to do it, you can do it.”

It's because of that flexibility, and potential for reduced costs, that more brick-and-mortar colleges, like Western Washington University in Bellingham, are including more online options.

In order to graduate on time, senior Victor Celis had to take a few online courses because of scheduling conflicts.  He couldn't be in multiple classrooms at once, so some of his classrooms were virtual, and he's glad Western offered that option.  “They’re giving them (students) the technology and experience that they need for when they go out and get jobs,” he told Clancy.  “But they’re also giving them that face-to-face interaction that really enhances a university and students’ college experience.”

Dr. Jason Kanov teaches in the business school at Western.  He currently offers his classes online options, such as lectures and virtual office hours. But he doesn't think what he has to passon could ever be completely accomplished strictly through a screen. “I can’t imagine a world where business will ever fully function, or even mostly function, without face-to-face interaction.”

Clancy asked,  "So you believe that Western is going to be relevant in the future?" 

Dr. Kanov responded, “Oh absolutely.  I think that we provide things that students can’t get elsewhere. Because we are committed to providing a high-quality educational experience, and we’re willing to evolve and adapt and innovate in that kind of environment, I think we’ll continue to be relevant for a very long time.”