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One in Four Students Takes Online Classes

“The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed,” writes Clay Shirky in a recent piece on Medium.

Shirky’s article first argues that online education has already become a norm in the United States. And then he argues that the reason it has become common is that for most students in America, especially those who don’t attend elite schools, the traditional brick-and-mortar 4-year degree isn’t feasible. It is too expensive and it doesn’t allow for the complications of real life, like marriage, jobs, children and caring for elders.

But let’s get back to the argument about online education.

“In the fall of 2012, the most recent semester with complete data in the U.S., four million undergraduates took at least one course online, out of sixteen million total, with growth up since then,” writes Shirky. Then he points out that that is “more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football. More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus. There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined.” That’s a lot of student who take at least one class online.

“At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal,” writes Shirky.More than 95% of colleges and universities with over five thousand students offer online classes for credit. “

So if online classes are as everyday as online dating, why haven’t you heard about it?  “The dramatic expansion of online classes has been largely ignored because it’s been driven by non-traditional students, which is to say students who are older and have more responsibilities than the well-off adolescents college has always stood ready to serve.”

One of the big questions about online education has been whether or not it is as good as traditional classroom education. But Shirky says that isn’t the right question, “Meanwhile, back in America, online education isn’t succeeding because it’s better than Oberlin, it’s succeeding because it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what’s on currently offer for millions of people.”

Who is online education for? “One common observation about online education is that it will mean ‘bricks for the rich and clicks for the poor.’ Something like this has indeed happened, though ‘…clicks for the poorly served’ would be more accurate,” writes Shirky. “Students taking online classes aren’t looking for bargains; the majority don’t take classes from the lowest-cost provider available. They are looking for flexibility, because they can’t quit their job or stop caring for their children or their parents just to attend college, but the world is telling them they need a degree to go from $7 an hour bagging groceries to $13 an hour drawing blood.”

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