Blog: Obama’s Free Online Courses Overstep Career Education Boundaries

In the virtual world, it’s hard to see where the boundary lines have been drawn between various industries and competitors fighting for the same customers within those realms. Those boundaries are even easier to miss when you’re a well-meaning presidential administration hoping to make yet another big impact on the American people.

As far as intentions go, the Obama administration inspired voters with hope and followed through after taking office by jumping into several troubled industries. By taking sweeping measures to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, they’ve promised to turn around a war, the automotive industry, the banking industry, and, of course, education. Good intentions are behind all those moves, but I hope the administration’s recent concept to deliver free online courses through community colleges and high schools has more weight to it that I can find, at least initially.

Inside Higher Ed broke the story last week about the President’s plan to provide $9 billion throughout the next decade “to help community colleges develop and improve programs related to preparing students for good jobs.” In all, the plan would cost taxpayers $19 billion since the administration is going to set aside an additional $10 billion loan fund (at low or no interest) for community college facilities.

Maybe a massive new initiative is needed to rejuvenate interest in community colleges. But here’s a revelation: an educational approach with an emphasis on developing job-related skills for specific careers already exists. And we know it works – it’s working – because it’s already offered by career colleges.

Rather than spending $9 billion to develop free online courses and an office to administrate them, why not help improve students’ awareness and access to career colleges? For the $19 billion dollar price tag, I’m sure our techno-savvy industry could develop portals and find a way to manage this initiative much more adequately than the government or community colleges could.

That point aside, the report offers a significant new revelation for postsecondary academia. By the looks of the sentence I extracted, traditional college administrators seem to be concerned about what happens to graduates after they leave campus – from an employment perspective. Finally, a connection is being drawn between education and actual employment.

The problem isn’t caring, though. For traditional schools, the issue lies in eliminating the laborious approval process for programs, minimizing the red-tape students encounter, and breaking the old mentality that students who focus on their education and education only are the most committed students.

Something good might come from free online college courses. Someone out there is going to get a free education and turn their life around. But if this were properly handled by the sector of education that has proven it knows the best approach, there would be more success stories to tell and good intentions would amount to something more meaningful.

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