Sites list alternatives to traditional schooling

By Reid Kanaley The Philadelphia Inquirer

You’d be hard-pressed to find a college not offering online courses. Some are cheap alternatives to traditional schooling. Here are some things to consider about inexpensive distance learning.

Coursera offers free online access to hundreds of college courses from Yale, Peking University, Penn State and 106 other institutions of higher learning. That’s impressive, but can you get real credit for taking a course on Coursera? Yes, in a way. Within a few weeks of starting a course, you can decide to opt for Signature Tracking. For a fee up to about $90 that Coursera shares with the university, the site will take steps to verify your identity and award a “verified certificate” of completion at the end of the course. The jury is out on what that’s worth in the job market.”

Programs like Coursera, along with edX and Udacity, are providers of MOOCs — massive open online courses. There’s getting to be a long list of MOOCs, and this site, MOOC List, aggregates them for searching. You can browse by subject, university or instructor, or even by “estimated effort.”

This Yahoo Finance article about Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, a $2,500-per-year online bachelor’s degree program, describes the offering as a competency-based curriculum aimed at working adult learners. Competencies are pass-fail projects, and “each competency represents a section of the course and there are 240 different competencies in all” for a bachelor’s degree, the article says.

Here’s the site for College for America. The hitch, we learn, is that students going for the four-year degree have to be working for “partner” employers, which include McDonald’s Corp., Sodexo, and a number of nonprofits. maintains a database of colleges offering online degrees, and a separate list of “cheap online colleges.” Data come from the U.S. Department of Education, and results include links to the college websites.

Studies of online education, posted on this page at the site of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, paint a generally unflattering picture. Some studies show that, compared with face-to-face schooling, students tend to perform more poorly in online courses, withdrawal rates can be exceedingly high, and minority and poor students tend to be underserved, due to issues of preparation and access to technology. It’s a far cry from the educational democratization that online instruction seems to promise – at least at this point on the learning curve.