4 Online Universities That Are Changing the Way You Learn
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Hailing a cab. Browsing in a bookstore. Renting a movie from Blockbuster.

What do these activities have in common? Thanks to Uber, Amazon and Netflix, they’re all things people don’t do as much as they used to.

Now here’s another activity: going to class.

Although the centuries-old institution of higher education has so far weathered the digital revolution without having to make any major changes, universities are increasingly looking like they could be among the Internet age’s next targets. The thinking goes something like this: the university as it currently exists is based on a model from a different century and the Internet is revolutionizing the way people access information, so isn’t it only a matter of time before learning gets a twenty-first century overhaul a la taxicabs and travel agents?

Over the last few years, educators and entrepreneurs have already started rolling out ways of using technology to reach new student populations and present a college experience for the digital age. From free universities for refugees to elite private colleges looking to siphon off Ivy League applicants, here are 4 online universities that are trying to change the way people learn.

  1. Kiron University

Launched in 2015 at the height of the European refuge crisis, Kiron University aims to provide free university education to refugees. Based in Berlin, the school offers bachelor’s degrees in a wide range of subjects through a three-year program that includes two years of online classes and a final year of traditional in-person classes taken through one of several brick-and-mortar institutions Kiron has partnered with worldwide.

Because Kiron University’s classes are taught in English, students not fluent in the language can enroll in an English class before moving on to their primary coursework. The school also offers offline services like couselling and preparatory courses at its Berlin headquarters. Online courses are adapted to Kiron’s e-learning framework from classes offered at world-renowned schools like Harvard and MIT.

Kiron is out to show that online universities can reach populations that didn’t previously have realistic access to higher education (students at the school must have their refugee status documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). And apparently, this mission has struck a chord – they have already raised several hundred thousand dollars through crowdfunding.

  1. The Minerva Project

The Minerva Project is a for-profit school – but not your grandmother’s for-profit school. Minerva aims to be a highly selective sort of online Ivy League for driven students who want to see the world instead of having a traditional campus experience. Students take classes online while living at residential sites in different “world cities,” including San Francisco, Berlin and Buenos Aires.

Minerva’s online curriculum, the brainchild of former Harvard psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn, looks to foster critical thinking by running classes as online seminars using software that encourages active learning. According to Minerva, “traditional universities generally view the dissemination of information as their primary responsibility,” but the content of traditional university courses is now readily available to anyone with an Internet connection, so “Minerva focuses on … intellectual development and experiential learning.”

Whether the Minerva Project can really become a kind of twenty-first century Harvard remains to be seen (the school enrolled its first class in 2014), but the idea has already attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding. Regardless of how Minerva itself fares, their blend of e-learning with their global residential program shows that online universities are worth paying attention to not just because online courses are easier and cheaper to run than conventional college classes but also because online education can open up a more flexible offline college experience.

  1. University of the People

University of the People, a Pasadena-based online university founded in 2009 that currently offers accredited bachelor’s programs in computer science and business administration, is out to show how online education can make higher education more open and accessible.

University of the People is run mostly by volunteer instructors, and peer-to-peer learning plays a crucial role in the school’s curriculum. As a result of the community- based teaching methods and consequent low operating costs, there is no tuition although students do pay administrative fees on an exam-by-exam basis – a degree will typically cost a couple thousand dollars all told.

Fitting with its emphasis on openness, University of the People uses only freely available educational materials, so no textbooks are necessary. Students also have access to the school’s online library.

University of the People’s commitment to open-access online higher education has drawn attention from partner institutions including traditional schools like New York University, technology companies like Microsoft and foundations like the Clinton Global Initiative. A significant portion of University of the People’s students come from developing countries, and the school’s collaborative teaching model shows how communities of educators and students supporting each other can act as resources to make higher education more global and accessible.

  1. Pennsylvania State University – World Campus

Startups and recently founded non-profits aren’t the only players getting into the online education scene. Traditional universities are increasingly taking note of e-learning’s potential and beginning to branch out with online degree offerings.

One of the most comprehensive online programs offered by an established “offline” college in the United States is Penn State World Campus, ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report‘s list of Best Online Bachelor’s Programs. Penn State’s online program isn’t special because it uses an innovative teaching model like University of the People and Minerva or because it targets a particular population like Kiron University – rather, it’s special because it’s basically indistinguishable from Penn State’s traditional offline program. Penn State World Campus students aren’t second-class students but are simply Penn State students who take their classes online from wherever they want.

Penn State World Campus courses are taught by the same faculty as Penn State’s in-person classes. The online courses cover the same material as the offline courses, and World Campus students earn the same degree as other Penn State students – a World Campus transcript doesn’t look different than a normal Penn State transcript.

Students applying to Penn State World Campus have an array of possible degree paths to chose from. The program offers over one hundred different kinds of degrees, both undergraduate and graduate. Penn State World Campus isn’t revolutionary because it follows some never-seen-before education model but because it shows the traditional university experience can be taken out of the university and transposed to the Internet. In other words, it shows you can have the university experience without the university.

Penn State World Campus carries one other perk that Kiron, Minerva and University of the People lack the degrees it offers have the legitimacy of a recognizable name behind them, and World Campus grads become part of Penn State’s vast alumni network. Because prestige and name recognition are such an integral part of higher education in the United States, the role online universities end up playing may be determined partly by whether they can break in and establish the kind of reliable brand reputation traditional universities enjoy.

One thing is clear, though: name recognition or no name recognition, online universities are already changing who has access to higher education and how they access higher education. As you read this article, refugees have already started working towards degrees at Kiron University, Minerva’s inaugural class are already in their second year of honing critical thinking through online seminars while becoming global citizens, University of the People has already granted degrees to students from developing and developed countries alike who wouldn’t otherwise have had access to higher education and Penn State World Campus has already spent a decade providing the Penn State experience to people in a lot more places than just Pennsylvania.

From those who can’t afford enrolling in a traditional university to those who want to take online courses while working a nine-to-five job to those who simply don’t want to be tied down to a college campus for four years, the types of students who stand to benefit from the more flexible and cost-effective model online universities provide are limitless. For this reason, online universities are likely here to stay, and in a decade or two it may be that higher education looks a lot different than it does today.

By Niels V.