Education reform ideas are a dime a dozen these days. Yet few of them have been more exciting or had more potential than online education, which promises to make education both cheaper and more accessible to students. Programs like MITx have already begun to offer courses by some of the nation’s leading professors in math and science available to the public at large—along with credentials for those who complete them. Meanwhile, screen sharing programs are making it possible to expand tutoring programs to inner-city students.Stanford, which was one of the first traditional universities to offer a significant online courseload, has now decided to expand its online offerings through a startup called Coursera. To help finance this expansion, it has already raised $16 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firms that have expressed optimism that Coursera can become profitable (even though some of its courses may still be offered for free). If it succeeds, students may be able to take courses at the nation’s top colleges without leaving their homes—and without going into debt.The progress does not end there. Akademos, another education startup, has begun rolling out a new system making it easy for college professors to comparison shop for textbooks. Rather than taking the word of textbook company representatives, professors can use Akademos to compare the (painfully expensive) textbooks with their cheap (or free) counterparts. This is a small but important innovation for chipping away at costs for cash-strapped college students.
All of the above is good news for students. The proliferation of startups like Coursera and Akademos suggest that there are indeed ways to make education more affordable without dumbing it down or reducing the quality. And it’s encouraging to see institutions of higher ed, if not always embracing change, at least giving it room for growth.