Online Certificates vs. Offline Degrees: Just A Marketing Distinction?

BBC News reports that MIT is launching its first fully automated course:

This is not a “watered down” version of the campus course or “any less intense”, says a university spokesman. The main difference is that the MITx version has been designed for online students, with a virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and videos that are the equivalent of a lecture. It is expected to take 10 hours per week and will run until June.

Elsewhere in the article it reports that MIT is making a distinction between online “certificates” and offline “degrees.” Naturally! Imagine how upset paying students would be if they discovered their degree was no better than some freeloading online upstart! But as these online courses get better and better, what will be the distinction really? Other than just a distinction in name? Eventually such a distinction may become absurd, like taking a product, stamping “premium” or “luxury” on it and then selling it at ten times the cost. But then I suppose that sort of thing happens in the marketplace all the time…

Perhaps it will be more like the difference between consumer and pro software. The online courses will be missing key features. You’ll take a test and not get the grade you want. Then you’ll click the “retake” button and a window will pop up that says, “This feature is only available to physical MIT students. Click here to apply for next semester.”

Seriously, I doubt it would go that way. But I’m trying to point out some huge looming questions on the horizon for higher education: How much is the prestige of an “official” degree worth? What is the monetary value of actually being on campus?

It’s hard for me to imagine that these two items—prestige and physical experience—will be enough to continue justifying currently inflated tuition costs. But perhaps I am wrong about that. Perhaps I underestimate the things people are willing to pay for. In any event, it will be interesting over the next decade to see if all these online developments have the effect of lowering tuition at all. (Or at least slowing the relentless rise of costs.)

Comments are closed.