Why isn’t higher education more like online dating?

March 21, 2011, 6:07 PM UTC

It is time for universities to take a page out of the Match.com playbook, by making online education pervasive, efficient, and higher quality. Only then will it lose its stigma.

By Alex Taussig, contributor

(I originally published this at my blog infinitetoventure.com. Go check it out!)

TechCrunch broke the news last week that our portfolio company 2tor raised an additional $32.5 million to improve the quality of online higher education. The article goes on to describe 2tor’s impact on its flagship customer, University of Southern California (USC):

To give you an idea of the impact 2tor can have on a school, USC’s Masters of Teaching program had about 80 students before partnering with 2tor, and all of them were on its California campus. Now it boasts almost 1,500 students enrolled in the program across 45 states and 28 countries. They all pay the same full tuition and get exactly the same degree. 2tor handles the website, supplying the students with webcams, creating online teaching materials in partnership with faculty, the logistics of finding local schools were the students themselves can practice teaching. The company shares in the tuition revenue.

I love watching the blogosphere’s reaction to funding announcements, especially when good questions are asked. Audrey Watters at Hack Education was particularly inquisitive:

As someone who completed her bachelors degree thanks to several distance learning opportunities (several of which were, admittedly, of the old-fashioned correspondence courses sort), I’m always pleased to see efforts that make it easier for those who can’t attend school in a traditional classroom setting to still be able to get a good education.

But I have to wonder: Why wouldn’t a university want to improve its online program? Is it that universities are archaic? (That might be a trick question.) Is it that universities see the value and necessity of the on-campus experience? Or is it that the distance and the technology challenge a number of things that a university has long controlled: Who receives the knowledge (and the degree) and how it’s distributed?

It’s a good question. Here’s my take:

At face value, online education does seem like a no-brainer for universities. Here are the most obvious benefits:

  • Increase your program’s revenue
  • Give more students access to the best teachers
  • Enhance your ability to track student progress quantitatively
  • Draw global, not just local, talent into your program
  • Promote your brand and compete more effectively for new students

As a result, 66% of our 4,160 post-secondary institutions in 2006-2007 offered some form of online course, while 26% offered some form of distance education (Source: NCES, 2008). In Fall 2009, an estimated 24% of students aged 25+ at degree-granting schools studied online, and that number is expected to rise to 40% by 2014 (Source: Eduventures, 2009). Most of this growth will be driven by adults going back to school:

It’s an answer that may feel unintuitive to those of us who went to school at a bricks-and-mortar university. If polled, I’d imagine most would associate online education with those late-night “go to school in your PJs” commercials. To some, online education may feel like online dating sites felt 10-15 years ago: sketchy at worst, a poor substitute for the real thing at best.

Yet, today Match.com claims that 17% of married couples met online. While that number is probably too high, most of us know at least one of these couples. Furthermore, the stigma attached to this concept is gone. In fact, many tout the efficiencies of an online matching service, especially for older professionals who don’t have time to play the scene. (Sound familiar? If not, you didn’t read the graph above.)

Fast-forward 10-15 years. I think online education will be a lot like online dating is today: Pervasive and of acceptable, even higher quality. We’re proud that 2tor is playing a leading role in this important transition and wish the team continued success in bringing quality higher education online.

Alex Taussig is a Principal with Highland Capital Partners and invests in startups tackling problems in some of the world’s oldest and largest industries — including energy, education, and machine automation. You can find this blog post, as well as additional content on his blog infinitetoventure.com. You can also follow Alex on Twitter @ataussig.

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