According to a recent report by the Babson Survey Research group, public colleges and universities experienced the largest growth in online course enrollment from 2015 to 2016, at 7.3%. Even more telling, between 2012 and 2016, the total number of students strictly studying on a physical campus dropped by more than a million.

With the growing popularity of companies that offer online courses from top-notch universities around the world, like Cousera and EdX, more and more colleges have begun putting a focus on their online learning offerings. With student debt at an all-time high, colleges need to evolve to compete with online courses that are offering much cheaper alternatives. As Subhash Kak, the Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineer at OSU put it, “Unless universities move quickly to transform themselves into educational institutions for a technology assisted future, they risk becoming obsolete.”

Online learning not only offers students more affordable options, but it also increases accessibility to students who may not be able to attend in-person classes due to conflicting schedules or geographical isolation. Online learning is helping reach underserved populations on a global scale, like the Online and Distance Learning System that is improving access to higher education for Malawians who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend.

Most universities and colleges realize the importance of evolving to ensure they can succeed in the higher education industry. But what does “evolving” look like? We took a look at a few different examples of colleges and universities and the ways they are moving towards online education.


Open Online Courses

Some can argue that MIT was the first to kick off the online revolution in higher education through MIT OpenCourseWare, which was first announced in 2001. Since then, they’ve had 1 billion page visits as of 2014. Their web-based publication gives users access to virtually all MIT course content and is available to everyone. In 2012, MIT teamed up with Harvard to form EdX, an open online course platform that offers university-level classes to the all users at no charge. Since then, a multitude of universities have joined in, including UC Berkeley, University of British Columbia, and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Smaller institutions, like University of Maine at Presque Isle, have also begun to enter the open source world of education. OpenU allows users to participate in online (and some on-site) classes for free along side UMPI students. While students that are not paying tuition fees won’t get credits awarded to them, it allows students to gain knowledge and expertise at no cost.


Professional Certificates & Competency Tests

Institutions know that tackling student debt is a high priority for the higher education industry in the United States. Because of this, colleges and universities are creating more affordable ways for students to “prove” proficiency in a subject.

Harvard Extension School has been around since 1910. However, with the shift to online education, they have started offering an increasing amount of courses online to fit students’ busy schedules. They offer nearly 40 different certificates in a variety of fields that can help students enter a career path that may not have been possible through traditional higher education methods (and their traditional costs).

Another great example is University of Wisconsin’s “UW Flexible Option” program. The program gives students an opportunity to earn a career-focused degree online, so it works with students’ schedules and offers more flexibility. The competency-based program focuses on teaching students skills that industry leaders and faculty leaders have deemed as essential to that particular degree or career-path. Students are tested on their competency through projects and assignments, and can complete them on their own time. One unique feature of this program is the fact that students can start at any time, instead of at the start of a semester or quarter.


Digital Badges

According to a survey by UPCEA, one in five colleges have issued digital badges. Digital badges allow for a traceable pathway of work, and can show employers exactly what types of skills a student has (and what they’ve accomplished). In 2015 Illinois State began issuing digital badges with the help of a vendor, Credly. The honors program’s interim director Rocio Rivadeneyra noted, “It’s a way for them to organize all their experiences”. Digital badges are a much more tangible way to show employers what students have learned compared to a diploma.

Another example, Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science Student Network, allows students, hobbyists, and teachers to earn badges that are machine discoverable and portable. Their goal was to address students’ needs from middle school until adulthood, offering a “complete pathway that stimulates and certifies CS-STEM learning”.

Digital badges are not only useful for recent grads; they are a way to archive and organize all the skills acquired throughout an education, as well as through a career. And they aren’t limited to higher education; many different types of organizations have begun issuing digital badges like the Smithsonian, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York.

With digital badges, students and any job seekers will be able to curate the exact skillset and data that they want hiring companies to know they have.


High-quality Online Only Courses

Texas A&M has introduced a new online lecture that will replace a mandatory introductory economics lecture that hundreds of business and economics majors are required to take each year. With the help of interactive videos and a digital resource library, the entire course is all ready for students before they even start class. This is the first time the university has moved a key lecture online.

Other Universities, like Georgia Tech’s Computer Science program, have built prestigious programs online. In 2014, AT&T gave the Georgia Institute of Technology $4 million to create an online degree program, which led to an online master’s degree program in Computer Science. The online program, which many experts consider to be one of the best of its kind in the country, has been able to lower tuition costs to one sixth of the cost of a traditional program and increase the class size by over 5x, without compromising quality.


Online Options During Emergencies

During emergencies or natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, on-campus classes can be impossible to hold, further increasing the negative effects of the disaster. Days before Hurricane Harvey hit, administrators from the University of St. Thomas in Houston encouraged faculty members to conduct class remotely. Once the hurricane hit, many areas were devastated and travel was out of the question for many. Because of this, many institutions in the area began offering online or hybrid options to allow students to continue their education in a safe environment.

Developing disaster plans that include hybrid or online class options can be crucial to students’ success for areas that experience hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. Online alternatives can also be extremely helpful for individual students that experience a personal tragedy, like a death in the family.


The shift towards online education doesn’t mean the end of traditional on-campus education. When used correctly, technology can enhance educational offerings and improve access to education. Some disciplines depend on in-person communication and collaboration, while others may be able to be conducted all online. As Amy Wang and Allison Schrager put it “higher education in the future will more likely be a continuum of services.”