What do you really get from an online education?

The recent announcement that Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are collaborating to provide free online classes through a nonprofit called edX has intensified the interest in online education.  While it is exciting that some of the biggest names in education are utilizing the ever changing information landscape to broaden learning opportunities, what do you really get after completing online courses?

The much talked about edX $60 million virtual classroom will launch in the fall of 2012 featuring MIT and Harvard content exclusively, with the long-term goal of other universities eventually contributing to the curriculum.  Anyone with access to the internet will be able to take free classes in an array of academic disciplines. The open source platform will feature teaching designed specifically for the Web and will include self-paced learning, online discussion groups and the ability to track learning progress through online laboratories.

But are the Harvard and MIT edX programs right for everyone?  Before you get too excited about the prospect of studying with these elite schools, it’s important to note that these programs won’t make you eligible for degrees from MIT or Harvard. Instead, edX will offer “certificates of mastery” for completing certain coursework. For those not familiar, certificates of mastery are sometimes used in online education and distance-learning programs to acknowledge student achievement without offering formal academic credit.

An up and comer on the online education scene, Course Hero may not have the cache of an Ivy League school, but they possibly offer something of greater value, the opportunity to apply your knowledge almost immediately.  Course Hero’s main course paths are focused on business, entrepreneurship, and Web programming. Like edX, the classes are free, however, each quarter, graduates from the entrepreneurship learning path can submit business plans for review, and Course Hero will select one student to receive $5,000. The winning entrepreneur-in-training will also get to pitch their business idea to Ron Conway, an angel investor who has partnered with the school to provide this unique opportunity.  In addition to the quarterly contest, Course Hero is also hiring from the ranks of students who have completed relevant course paths.

UCLA is another school that is using the power of the internet to make learning more accessible, albeit in a different way, through an initiative called UCLA FEMBA Flex. Created to help people who are looking for a traditional accredited MBA, but need a more flexible schedule to make it happen, this option uses virtual lessons in tandem with traditional classroom learning.

Starting in the fall of 2012, UCLA Anderson is offering a hybrid scheduling option for FEMBA, their Fully Employed MBA Program. FEMBA Flex pairs the traditional classroom experience with online learning, to help students whose full-time careers, long commutes or personal commitments make it difficult for them to attend classes on campus every week.

The program is designed so that candidates need to visit the campus only four weekends per quarter, with the rest of the core curriculum available through FEMBA’s online learning platform, which includes web-based lectures, interactive group work, and web-assisted learning tools.  All FEMBA Flex students take the same core courses, are taught by the same faculty and receive the same UCLA Anderson MBA degree as the other FEMBA sections, as well as the full-time MBA and Executive MBA students.

While the Harvard/MIT initiative will undoubtedly be an enticing option for some, they may fall short for those seeking real world opportunities or legitimate credentials.  As online learning becomes more commonplace, accreditation is certain to become one of the biggest challenges in the edtech movement. It will be interesting to see how individual schools tackle the broader issue of proof of mastery from an online education.

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