U.S. colleges face a "perfect storm" of problems as tuition costs soar, opportunities for graduates sag, and employers complain they cannot find enough workers with key technical skills. One solution may be found in the growing number and quality of online classes. The digital revolution might transform universities the way the Internet has already changed music, publishing, journalism, retail, and other businesses.
"This is pretty amazing," said the University of Virginia's David Evans, teaching an online introduction to Computer Science.
Online classes are now taught by many top universities and offer everything from computer programing to the science of cooking. Many classes are either free or inexpensive, and are updated more quickly than regular college curricula.
That's important to the millions of students who learn technical and other skills from Lynda.com. Co-founder Lynda Weinman said, “We can come to market very quickly and we can teach transient skills, so a lot of software is changing constantly and new software is being invented, and those sorts of things cannot easily make their way into college curriculum.”
Instead of the professor lecturing to students, who then do research, study, and homework alone, many online classes flip that around, according to student and blogger John Haber, who said he is taking enough online classes to earn a four-year college degree in just one year.
“They are watching the lectures at home as homework, recorded lectures, and when they get to class, they are having more active discussions, or interactions with the teachers or working on projects," he explained.
Experts say the new technology will have a “major impact” on colleges. And some predict future classes may be a blend of online lectures and professors helping students work through difficult problems in person.
These would be welcome changes according to Georgetown University labor economist Tony Carnevale, who said school has to be less expensive and more focused on skills needed by employers.
“It's really quite clear that more and more people need post-secondary education and training and a lot of them are not getting it. And in cases where they do get it, it doesn't lead to gainful employment. Or it leads to jobs where they don’t fully use their talents, and we don’t have enough money to buy our way out of this so the efficiency of post-secondary institutions is crucial now," he said.
College marketing expert Chris Cullen, of the Infinia company, said competition from online alternatives, and concern about costs, will change universities.
"The consumer demands that you tell me why, give me a reason, to believe that my money, my tuition money is best spent at your institution," he said. "What is the return on my investment? What is your value proposition?"
Cullen said top schools with strong reputations may expand in an online world, but less selective, less prestigious universities may struggle to attract students - and their tuition payments.