Online Courses vs. Higher Education

Online Courses vs. Higher Education

Online learning is growing incredibly fast. Today there are more ways to find structured knowledge online than ever before. Meanwhile, as standard education costs continue to rise and the coronavirus continues to spread, parents around the country are reconsidering the value of higher education. Yet while online learning has begun to fill the gap higher education leaves behind, it still has big problems.

First, nobody finishes online courses. According to this study, MOOCs have completion rates as low as 15%. The research puts it as low as 10%. This guy started a successful company called LeadCraft, but killed it because nobody finished his (very profitable) $997 course.

The second reason is networking. Aside from collecting more information, the other major benefit from college courses are the connections you make. This is why why parents are hesitant to pay the $65,000 for online classes. Connections aren't just friends -- the connections you make as part of your education form your network and support system, and aid in your development, especially as a young and impressionable undergrad.

What people are really paying for is transformation. While I could argue the $50,000 spent transforming your hopeful 18-year old into a drunken 22-year old is questionable, online courses have their challenges as well.

Gaps to Fill

But there is continued progress in the online learning format that can bridge this gap. Tech has begun to understand the value of community building, not just as a go-to-market strategy, but as a way to keep and retain customers. But this is still very early and there's no standard playbook. Community building in tech will bleed into online learning as a means for ensuring positive student outcomes. For example, Product School not only  offer an online learning format, but also provides access to daily events, in-person conferences, a slack community with interviews with top product managers. This comes as students from early online programs, like Code Academy, complained of a lack of job placement. It's not enough to provide the courses anymore, but to ensure a positive outcome (job placement, starting a company). We'll see in a matter of time whether this has positive outcomes on completion and success rates.

Second is a change from the MOOC style learning. This comes in the form of live, cohort style learning. While MOOCs offer the flexibility to learn at your pace, that flexibility results in a lack of accountability. This intensive leadership program called altMBA, could set the precedent for this new online education format. It describes itself as, "The altMBA uses digital tools like Slack, Discourse and Zoom to engage with small groups of 120 students in an intense four-week process. Since it was founded in 2015, the altMBA has transformed the lives of more than 4,500 people in more than 70 countries around the world." Instead of cheaper on-demand course, this is a more intense, application-only, and expensive ($4,500) cohort style class. Would you send your kid here, among incredible ambitious students across the globe versus the standard MBA? For just $4,500 versus the ~$150,000 MBA, why not try it? 

A recent development is the partnership between co-founders of altMBA, Wes Kao and co-founder of Udemy Gagan Biyani, to create a new company in this format. They've raised ~$4M, so it is very early, but I would bet my money on its success.

We are in a fuzzy middle ground between the potential of new online learning and the unbundling of traditional higher education. A lot remains to be seen, but given the current high costs of college, the tenuous connection with outcomes, the incredible growth of online learning and its evolution of format, I'd bet on the latter.

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