Is Online Education the Future or the Last Resort?

In a recent episode of All Things Considered, NPR highlighted the University of the People, an online institution that claims to be “the world’s first, tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution.”  It helps individuals like Naylea Omayra Villanueva Sanchez who, due to a motorcycle accident, can neither physically attend nor financially afford a university education.
Sounds dreamy, yes?  In the words of one commenter, “the concept tickles peoples (sic) utopian fantasies.”  This is perhaps why it didn’t take long for the generally unruffled comment thread generated by NPR faithfuls to get a little derisive—even rightfully so.
Surviving without profit
UoP isn’t actually the first non-profit online institute—Khan Academy beat them by three years in 2006.  Since Khan and UoP, numerous institutions have sprung up, including for-profit Udacity and Coursera and non-profit edX, a venture by MIT, Harvard, and other leading universities.
It seems, however, that this pie in the sky is having trouble manifesting.  Despite partnering with Hewlett Packard and Yale, UoP is catching heat for going back on its promise for a free education.  Starting in September, new students of UoP will pay $100 for every final exam.   Even its supporters are concerned.
“How are we going to make this work, while keeping it tuition-free and not having any onerous fees that would at all restrict access to the world’s poorest of the poor, yet at the same time keep the organization growing?” asks Dalton Conley, New York University’s former dean of social sciences.  Conley goes on to quote Shai Reshef, the founder of UoP, “We’re not the future of higher education, we’re the last resort.”
Philip Altbach, head of the Center of International Higher Education at Boston College, says, “[It’s] a nice idea,” but adds a caveat, “I think it’s a bit half-baked at this point.”
Plagiarism in the online eLearning community
Altbach cites another difficulty with massive online learning: plagiarism.  “How, for example, will you figure out that the admirable woman in Peru is taking the tests herself?”  (Note: one commenter proposed biometrics.)
Coursera has recently come under fire—by its own students, no less—for such cases of plagiarism found in peer-graded essays.  Laura K. Gibbs, a lecturer teaching online courses at the University of Oklahoma and a student of Coursera’s fantasy and science fiction class, lamented the incidents on her blog.
(In case you’ve forgotten, here’s TeLS’s previous infographic and article on 10 types of plagiarism.)
eLearning has a disadvantage in that instructors don’t always look at students’ work, but their students also hail from across the globe.  Many universities boast eclectic student backgrounds, but not all institutions remember that some students plagiarize because they don’t know it’s culturally unacceptable.
“If we really are trying to teach the world, including people from other cultures,” says Coursera professor Charles Severance, “we have to take a responsibility to educate people about plagiarism, not just vaporize people for it.”
A ghost-writer comes clean
If Daphne Koller’s sense that plagiarism doesn’t happen more frequently than in regular classroom environments isn’t enough for some skeptics, they might consider picking up a copy of The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat by ghostwriter-come-clean Dave Tomar.  After feeling alienated and cheated out of a quality education at Rutgers, Tomar wrote papers for cash at bachelor’s through doctoral levels.  What’s more, he sees himself for what he is—“Even if I can rationalize what I’m doing, I can’t take any pride in it…I’m trash”—but also sees everyone in the college institution as a “co-conspirator.”
Tomar goes on, “When I started doing this job, I was so angry over my university experiences and just over the direction of our culture in general….  We are so deeply entrenched for a lot of economic reasons in this cost structure where colleges have inflated their costs so dramatically, but the return on it is completely static.”
Perhaps University of Michigan and Coursera professor Eric S. Rabkin feels a similar cynicism after years of deep entrenchment in this kind of dollar-signs culture.  “I’m not interested in proving this could substitute for the University of Michigan,” he says. “What I’m after is seeing if we have a way of capitalizing on a large group of people with smart software and a clever system that can make a community that has guidance and can teach itself.”

Kay Winders is presently the resident writer for, where she researches the best way for people to pay off their debts without damaging their credit. In her spare time, she enjoys freelance writing, the beach and gardening.

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