October 6, 2012

Online courses and virtual learning are gaining ground, supported by the idea that learning can happen anytime, any place, anywhere. Stanford, Columbia, and many other leading universities are now offering free online courses. Individuals (many of which are distinguished professors) have launched their own platforms such as Coursera and edX. Already, 33 institutions such as Stanford are using Coursera to provide their free online courses. Other institutions, such as Berkeley, have chosen the non-profit edX. Now, Google has created an open-source course-building site that allows anyone to offer online courses.

Since online learners will be taking courses from a mix of platforms and sites, I predict the formation of a transcript institution. Per a fee, this institution will create an official transcript that may be shown to potential employers or universities. Eventually, enough online courses will be offered from universities, organizations, and even individuals worldwide that anyone will be able to take a number of courses equivalent to that required for a degree. Thus, another institution will come into being: an official degree-granting institution, which does not offer courses but simply has the power of accreditation. Let’s call it the American Accreditation Institution (AAI).

Those offering online courses will submit a proposal to the AAI for their course(s) to be approved to contribute toward a certain degree. Then when students check out which online courses are offered (possibly by going to Google’s Course Builder), each course will have an indicator of being approved by the AAI to contribute to a certain degree. Thus, a student’s resume might say, “BA History, American Accreditation Institution, 2020.”

What implications would these developments have for learning? As learning becomes increasingly virtual, there is less and less in-person interaction. Communication and collaboration is essential in the working world and this is one of the most important opportunities that traditional education provides. However, online collaboration between colleagues, supervisors and employees is growing in importance. If virtual learning allows for similar collaboration, perhaps this novel approach will better prepare students for the 21st century workforce.

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