Consider this: the average annual tuition for out-of-state students at a public four-year college is $23,890, not including housing, food, books, supplies, and other necessities. As education-related expenses reach sky-high numbers and continue to rise, many critics have begun to question if attending university is actually the sound investment it was always thought to be. Students too are growing increasingly more skeptical, causing many young adults to seek alternative options for affordable education.

Luckily for them, it’s never been easier to learn outside of the classroom setting, thanks to Massive Open Online Courses – or MOOCs for short – that facilitate distance learning with unlimited participation and universal access through the web. Just like a traditional university, MOOCs come equipped with filmed lectures, problem sets, course readings, and user forums where students and instructors can collaborate and communicate.

The open online model continues to proliferate in higher education and the number of MOOCs is steadily increasing, offering a number of advantages over the traditional higher education model.    

Free or Low-Cost Education Option

Students today are continuously reminded by their parents that college wasn’t nearly as expensive “back in their day.” However irritating this may be, it is absolutely correct. Even when adjusted for inflation, college tuition has surged over the course of the last 30 years, rising by over 200% from 1987 to 2017, resulting in 44 million Americans owing a whopping 1.48 trillion dollars in student loan debt.

The government doesn’t appear to be doing much to alleviate this burden. After three decades of spending cuts at the state level, public colleges have seen a 25% decline in funding per student, meaning many universities simply lack the budget to offer online courses for free.

Moreover, for many graduates, college doesn’t always prove to be worth the massive financial investment. This sentiment is reflected in public opinion, as 60% of Americans believe that colleges and universities are unable to provide students with good value for their money. MOOCs, on the other hand, are tuition-free or charge a minimal fee in comparison to a typical college. Students can take classes in a variety of fields without feeling weighed down by massive debts.

Learning Flexibility and Personalization

MOOCs represent a disruptive innovation in education. They’re both flexible and accessible, allowing students to learn when and how they want. They also offer a diverse range of materials to appeal to all types of learning styles and abilities. Entirely online platforms support a plethora of options, from interactive quiz questions to closed-captioned video lectures.

To attract students, universities must find ways to incorporate digital elements into course structure. In-person classes aren’t enough anymore – there must be an online component that offers students the same engaging versatility that they have grown accustomed to outside of the classroom.

MOOCs also leverage machine learning algorithms to better understand what students want out of a course. Through data analysis, MOOC providers can predict students’ needs and then provide the proper materials that will fit their learning style. In contrast, it is far more difficult for universities to tailor the classroom experience in the same highly personalized and sophisticated manner.

Fewer Required Resources

The growing popularity of MOOCs has caused many educators to be concerned about their current and future roles in the ever-changing education landscape. MOOCs are scalable and do not require a multitude of instructors. Hundreds of thousands of students can sign up for a course that only requires a handful of teachers and teaching assistants. In addition, students don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks that will likely not be used again once the course is completed. In the context of MOOCs, all required materials are available online – a far more affordable, not to mention less wasteful, solution.

While distance learning provides unprecedented levels of convenience and flexibility, there are some things a digital platform simply can’t replace. One of these is the personal relationship students once enjoyed with their teachers. Even with online courses offered in a more traditional setting, it’s difficult for instructors to truly get to know the student behind the screen.

As technology continues to revolutionize the world of higher education, universities must embrace these changes and devise proactive plans that capitalize on new developments to stay competitive.

Many universities are facing this challenge head-on by creating their own MOOCs to stay ahead of the game. In true “if you can’t beat them, join them” fashion, prominent universities like Harvard and MIT have created their own MOOCs that are open to the public, with many other schools following their lead. By learning valuable lessons from the flourishing MOOCs, universities can borrow the most successful elements and prove to students that a solid education is truly priceless.