College courses have been offered online for more than a decade, but the past two years have seen the concept gain more attention as major colleges have signed up, creating paid and free coursework that some say could upend higher education.
Two general approaches are being used, both dependent upon the spread of fast Internet connections and people’s increasing comfort with online interaction: Paid courses, and free or low-cost courses.
The original online education model was an Internet version of well-established “distance learning” by private institutions using the mail.
The University of Phoenix, which started in 1970 as an after-hours school for working adults and launched its online program in 1989, is the best-known and biggest of for-profit schools. It claims more than 400,000 students each year and offers associate, bachelor’s, master’s and even doctoral degrees, taught by 1,500 full-time and 20,000 part-time faculty using a standardized curriculum.