The point at which online higher education becomes mainstream is no longer in some fuzzy hypothetical future; It is here and has enveloped the physical classrooms already. In just 30 days, the largest school system in the U.S. started offering credit for online courses, a major university began awarding degrees without any class time required, and scores of public universities are moving their courses online. The Secretary of Education in the next president’s office will need an entire department dedicated to this phenomenon.

For over a decade, admissions-selective universities in the U.S. (e.g. not the University of Phoenix) resisted giving credit for their overwhelmingly popular online courses. But today, that belief is changing. As a proof-of-concept, MIT’s groundbreaking Open CourseWare project established with just 50 free online courses has quickly expanded to 1,700 courses through a worldwide consortium of universities in just three years. To date, MIT’s Open Courseware has a staggering 125 million lifetime visitors.

Recently, the California State University System which faced financial difficulties piloted a few online courses for credit, at the super-low cost of $150 per course.

Just three weeks after California’s announcement, The American Council on Education, a consortium of roughly 1,800 accredited universities, began offering cheap online science courses at three universities, including Duke and the University of Pennsylvania.

Perhaps most disruptive of all, the University of Wisconsin is offering a fully legitimate college degree without any class time required. So long as students pass some tests and pay the associated costs, they can learn from anywhere in the world.

Online education startup Coursera, which offers a combination of interactive video, homework, and peer learning communities to courses from top-tier universities, has amassed more than 2.5 million users in only twelve months since its debut in April 2012.

Offering her views on these new breed of sites, Alison Johnston, CEO of InstaEDU, an online tutoring site explains, “Sites like Coursera are the classroom and teacher; InstaEDU and other tutoring sites are the teacher's aide (TA); and sites like Piazza and OpenStudy act as virtual study groups.”

To give readers a sense of how abrupt this change is, online education pioneer and founder of the YouTube-based learning website Khan Academy, Sal Khan, opined about a test-based college degree at Aspen Institute’s big-think Ideas Festival two years ago. No one, even those on the cutting edge of digital education, considered that they were talking about the very near future.

Why online education is receiving a positive response?

The burgeoning online education scene is considered as a practical option to a traditional college education for a number of reasons — cost, convenience and efficiency.

"For the most part, online-based education is equivalent [to a traditional college education]. Students can learn in either setting," Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education (ACE), tells Mashable.

Also most college students are not, in reality, how we picture the typical college student, explains Sandeen. Only 25% of university students are in their late teens to early twenties and entered college right after high school. The remainders participate at other times in their lives, making online courses convenient. And the online class model reflects today's work environment, she adds, with groups from around the country or world working together online.

"It doesn't have to be an either/or," she adds. "What we're seeing is a lot of traditional institutions incorporating online classes.”

While few teachers worry about the quality of online courses, the truth is that our education system, primarily designed to test rote memorization, is built to scale and be independent of teacher interaction. A review of research by the Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

A pilot of MIT and Harvard’s joint online educational initiative, EdX, found that blending SJSU classes with world-class online lectures reduced the number of students who received a C or lower by 31%.

In other words, computers can–and have–successfully replaced teachers.

To increase retention, the National Science Foundation-funded project will offer a range of mentoring and monitoring services, including encouraging emails should students get stuck on a particular assignment.

Will the traditional classroom experience be missed?

These online education companies give aspiring students unprecedented access to higher learning. Students from anywhere in the world can get access to classes at Ivy League universities at a much more affordable rate.

But what's missing is the typical college experience, in which students, legal adults, get to have more independence outside their parents' homes and move into dorms or campus housing. With online classes, students could continue to live at home with their parents in order to save money on living expenses.

Dr. Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, said, "there's certainly something to be said for the college experience. College is where students build their social and professional networks, ones they will rely upon throughout the rest of their lives. Students living on campus also tend to mature much more quickly, as they take on new responsibilities and maintain a new level of independence."

Earlier this year, Techcrunch attempted to predict how California’s partnership with online course provider ,Udacity, could succeed and radically replace most of the physical college experience.

It explains how the pilot will spell an end for community colleges, part-time teaching faculty and, eventually, graduate programs. It ends with suggesting that a smaller number of students would actually receive personal mentoring by professors in the near future.

The whole online education revolution thing is so far sending the right signals and taking the right steps. But it could also be that the colleges are acting quicker than they’re thinking. It can take years to assess a single course, let alone an entire restructuring of the education system. A review of research by the Department of Education shows pretty definitively that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”      

Still, educational experiments give great results but they struggle when pilots move beyond the highly dedicated walls of an experiment.

In short, we don’t have enough idea of how this will affect our educational system. What we do know is that while online courses are finding their ways into the traditional classroom setting, students are excited to take the opportunity of flexible learning.

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