Technology is creating virtual universities. Discuss.

Stanford University: now online as well. Credit: Flickr

In the global economy, the entire world’s a marketing opportunity, even in education. Disruptive technology is continually creating more and more access to leading professors, coursework, and alternative learning opportunities. So when does the “brand value” of the credentials or degree offered by elite universities fall mightily in the facing of impossibly high costs and increasingly less availability?

Does the “bricks and mortar” experience offered by leading institutions of higher learning become irrelevant in the face of on-line competitors offering a more individualized experience, at times and in virtual places when students are available to learn, not when colleges want to teach them? Who does the traditional university serve anymore, anyway?

A new report from Complete College America gives hard data to a series of findings that should reset perceived norms about college in America today. Called Time is the Enemy, the report measures and tracks the success and failure of all kinds of America’s college students, not just the federally mandated counting of first time and full-time students that underpins most of our current educational policies and practices. For example:

Nontraditional students are the new majority. 75 percent of college students are “college commuters,” juggling families, job, and school, and often attending part-time. Only 25 prcent of students attend full-time residential colleges, and that number is decreasing annually.

Part-time students rarely graduate — even when they have twice as much time to get their degree. Why? These students don’t have the luxury of time to earn needed credits in the traditional semester schedule. They require, and want, the ability to show their competencies to skip unnecessary courses, to block-schedule campus based classes, to be able to schedule work and family duties, and to avail themselves of on-line coursework, peer learning, and social support networks available 24/7.

Students are wasting time on excess credits not required to graduate…and taking too much time to earn a degree. The parent of any sixth-year senior might want to weigh in here, but the reality of engaging in an extended voyage of intellectual development might work as long as someone else is footing the bill, not for folks with limited time and money. If access to needed requirements is limited — because of scheduling, or “lack of inventory” — the demand for alternatives, especially on-line, skyrockets.

Bill Keller’s recent New York Times article titled “The University of Wherever” reports on the pull and tug of demographic differences at elite Stanford University. On the one hand, Stanford is competing mightily with a host of bricks and mortar schools to open a branch campus of applied science in New York City, limited to 2,300 students, at sticker-shock prices. On the other hand, Stanford Professor Sebastian Thune makes the case for open, low-cost educational experiences, offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online, for free, so that 130,000 students around the globe get the same lectures, the same exams, the same assignments, coupled with a worldwide peer review and support network. Sadly, they won’t get the Stanford credit. But which one fulfills the spirit of education, and the needs of students, best?

The bottom line is America is facing its first generation that will be less educated than the one before, and every day we wait to develop educational alternatives puts us further and further behind. It’s not a matter of the name of the college on the degree you get, but a simple matter of getting a degree that is backed up by proven competencies and skills in graduates. And in 2011, how does an educational institution go about creating, and marketing, that?

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