The School-Less Revolution: Free Online Courses Being Considered For College Credit

Students could soon receive college credit for taking free online courses. Massive Online Open Course platform Coursera is working with accreditation standards institution American Council on Education to evaluate whether its online classes are sufficient for the kinds of college credit awarded in Advanced Placement courses.

Should free online courses be given accreditation, it could dramatically reduce the cost of the first two years of college and release a significant portion of education from the confines of schools. “Students will have an unprecedented opportunity to obtain recognized credentials for their work,” said Professor William G. Bowen, former President of Princeton University. “This could significantly reduce the costs of higher education for millions of students.”

Coursera is part of a broader educational movement to provide universal access to world-class education by putting lectures and materials from top universities online for free. MIT OpenCourseWare, the pioneer of the system, has seen over 125 million lifetime views. Coursera augments its lectures with interactive forums and peer graders, which it argues are close to the quality of a college teaching assistant.

Despite their success, accredited schools hold a monopoly on the American education system. No matter how competent a student or quality a class, only classes that can be counted for credit are taken seriously. As a result, pretty much everyone has to be funnelled through the traditional classroom.

But if free online courses could be given the recognition of something like Advanced Placement, it would disrupt the very foundation of the education system. First, it’s nearly free (the ACE might charge a nominal fee), and the entire first two years of college — which consist mostly of cookie-cutter large lecture courses — could be replaced. Second, there’s one teacher for millions of students. That means fewer schools, fewer teachers, less overhead, and more flexibility. States like Florida have experimented with teacher-less classes, and research shows that they have the potential to be as good as regular classes.

A review of research by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.” The research should be taken with a grain of salt, since we don’t know how the introduction of world-class teachers, or the effects of scale, will change the outcomes.

All of this is still being considered, but the talks look serious. And it’s inevitable that online courses will in one way or another replace schools. The school system, as we know it, is on the verge of extinction.