Over the last month, we have witnessed the beginning of the world’s largest experiment in online higher education. Nearly every college in the country has canceled in-person classes and closed on-campus housing in response to COVID-19. From living room tables around the country, administrators and professors are firing up their laptops and scrambling to come up with virtual replacements for in-person classes.

I co-founded MasterClass, where I led course design and creative direction, and I most recently founded Outlier.org, where we offer online education courses that earn students transferable college credit. As someone who has spent much of my career devoted to online education, I can empathize with those who are now suddenly confronted with the challenges of creating an effective replacement for in-person instruction. 

But while the current situation is bound to be fraught with awkward adjustment issues, the future of online higher education holds incredible promise through lower costs and increased accessibility. The uprooting caused by COVID-19 will only serve to make that promise, and the improvements needed to achieve it, more clear.

The Current Transformation in Online Education

Even though some version of online higher education has been around for decades, we should remember that this particular experience—transforming for-credit college courses into online versions at scale in a matter of days—is brand new to everyone. A bit of empathy and flexibility is well-warranted for the teachers and students who have to accommodate this change.

Understandably, the replacements that colleges have developed on extremely short notice have produced mixed experiences. From slow internet connections and hard-to-find mute buttons, to exam-proctoring issues and lectures that just don't translate to video, the transition has created its share of hardship for students and professors alike. This is all to be expected when dealing with an unforeseen crisis, but it has still raised some hard questions, especially as students demand refunds and ponder their on-campus future.

The Ongoing Student Debt Crisis

This crisis will only accelerate trends that were clear well before it. We were already aware that it was past time to address issues with cost, accessibility, and student debt. 

For example, just before the pandemic took over the news cycle, higher education news was dominated by the staggering $1.6 trillion that Americans owe in student debt. College is meant to improve people’s lives and competitiveness in the workforce, but it has paradoxically become the same event that sinks young Americans into crushing levels of debt and limits their choice of career path.

At Outlier, we find it useful to look at the issue at the course level. Each year, about one million students take Calculus I, for example. On average, those courses cost about $2,500. So Calculus I, alone, is a $2.5 billion dollar industry for American universities. Yet almost half of those students fail, so students collectively waste over $1 billion each year, just on Calculus I! There is absolutely no reason that we should waste this much money teaching students Calculus.

Augmenting, Not Replacing, the In-Person Experience

For many students, the in-person university experience is incredibly valuable. It's a chance to create lifelong friends, discover social causes, and generally mix it up with peers and professors who provide the challenges needed to learn and grow. And of course, it's also just plain fun. 

These are worthwhile benefits that should never be dismissed—and online education will long struggle to match them—but they're often separate from the act of learning course material. For that, you simply need capable and engaged students, high-quality course material, and an effective means of evaluating students’ understanding of that course material. 

All of those elements can be achieved through the internet, if we rethink instruction from the ground up. At Outlier, for example, we believe that cinema-quality lectures, delivered by instructors whose teaching styles work well with the format, are the best means of teaching students effectively, at scale. 

There are also natural advantages to this medium as compared to an in-person setting. For example, you can offer unlimited one-on-one tutoring via chat, something that's difficult and expensive to replicate in-person. You can also splice active learning exercises into lectures to help students retain information more efficiently. And because courses don't have to adhere to an on-campus schedule, students can begin them whenever their schedule permits. More importantly, online courses allow the provider to evaluate their effectiveness in incredibly granular terms and adjust them repeatedly to continuously improve success rates.

Because these courses can be offered for a fraction of the cost of a traditional course, students can effectively reduce their overall tuition by earning introductory course credits online. This means that we can increase accessibility of higher education, without necessarily sacrificing some the in-person benefits I alluded to earlier.

Emerging with a Stronger, More Equitable Higher Education System

By being forced to experience college in an unfamiliar way, we are all beginning to rethink the fundamentals of American higher education. 

When we emerge from this crisis, higher education will inevitably look very different. If we learn the right lessons, it will emerge as more flexible and less expensive, with a sensible division between what can be done online versus in-person. 


Visit GoGuardian's Distance Learning hub for resources to support your schools during closures.