The ongoing consolidation of the online higher education system, especially in the for-profit sector, is one of the most important developments in the last twenty years. Yet, like the emergence of the internet in the early to mid 1990’s, it remains almost completely invisible in the mainstream– I am tempted to say lamestream— media. I think it’s under-reported even in the education media.
There’s a lot to be concerned about the emerging online system– arguably, the most transformative development of the internet so far– yet the emergence of the new institutions seems to be happening without much public discussion, much less scrutiny. The discussion that is going on, such as in Inside Higher Ed (“Going Off on Online Rankings“) seems so lost in the trees that it never considers the forest.
The U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of online schools are significant because they signal the first stages in the maturation of the online industry, led by for-profits, but increasingly joined by public schools. The final shape of the system– it’s ratio of for and not for profit institutions– has yet to be determined, mostly because the online system so radically widens the pool of potential students.
We need answers or at least a debate. Will the new system make life-long learning a practical reality? It’s not a part of the Republican or Democrat deadbeats’ agendas, but ironically that absence may signal its significance. Just as importantly, is this emerging system going to reproduce the traditional system’s exploitative labor policies, massive debt, and alienating mass consumption?