How Technology Continues to Disrupt Higher Ed

Middlebury College's Middlebury Interactive, a web-based approach to foreign language learning.

Middlebury Interactive Languages is a web-based approach to foreign language learning.

Recently, the number of outstanding student loans in the U.S. reached an all-time high at $1 trillion, making college costs one of the largest sources of consumer debt. As colleges keep raising their prices, it becomes progressively more difficult for students to gain a sound financial footing after college.

The option of an online education that costs a fraction of a traditional schooling has never looked so good.

While technology’s role in reshaping education predates even the earliest overhead projector, its potential to disrupt North American schooling now seems greater than ever. More colleges are proposing the option of full online degrees and in the past year the idea of a complete switch to web-based learning has emerged as a potentially practical solution to America’s education problem. Some believe that once more schools put the economical offer of a full, accredited online degree on the table, the costly campus experience will become a thing of the past. Whether young (and older) Americans will also be willing to trade the social aspect of academia for ease of access and a lower price tag remains to be seen.

Here are three platforms that offer high-quality online education.

2U Inc.

2U has been making waves as it partners with top-tier universities such as the Washington University School of Law and the University of North Carolina to deliver selective graduate and undergraduate degree programs online. With its academic partners, 2U delivers more than 1,000 live small class sessions weekly. It was recognized at a major recent education innovation conference for appreciably increasing access to education and reducing costs for students and institutions alike.

Students on the 2U platform must meet 2U’s partner institutions’ admissions criteria and pay tuition fees set by the schools. Costs vary by institution, and some students may wind up paying close to the offline market price. (Last year we reported on 2U students paying $97,500 for online degrees.)

While Massively Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) such as Coursera also offer exceptional opportunities for distance learning and continued education, they do not offer credit or issue degrees. 2U does, and it also recreates the in-class experience online. Students get to share a screen with the instructor and connect within a virtual classroom setting through video chat. While it’s not the campus experience most post-secondary students may envision, it is one virtual step closer to the real thing.


Baltimore-based StraighterLine proposes to help students bypass the rising costs of college through a partnership with over 40 colleges. It has also signed on an additional 400 to accept StraighterLine course credits. The site boasts an affordable subscription-based pricing plan of $99 per month with a one-time fee of $49 per course. Partnering colleges include Excelsior College, the University of Phoenix, and Kaplan College. StraighterLine offers a faster track to full degrees through participating colleges, but students can’t earn a diploma through the online platform itself.

Middlebury Interactive

Nominated for the same award as 2U, Middlebury College offers online foreign language teaching through its Middlebury Interactive Languages platform, created in partnership with technology-based education company K12. Middlebury Interactive emphasizes a focus on world culture and cross-cultural understanding. Its task-based immersion approach includes text, audio, and video components in six languages, including Spanish, French, Chinese and Latin. It is a meaningful alternative partly because Middlebury is so well-known for the quality of its language programs.

A complete switch to higher education online might be a long way off, but the argument for enabling it is making its way into the mainstream. Tim Worstall writes on Forbes that higher ed is poised for disruption “once this credentials problem goes away.” He goes on to say that higher ed “is the next industry to be entirely overturned by modern technology.” He says it would be no surprise if the number of students at traditional colleges drops 50 percent in the next 30 years.

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