There could be 25 million online college students by 2015, according to research.

Low-cost online courses could help higher education from becoming the next economic bubble that bursts and inflicts fiscal pain on institutions, investors, and students, said educational technology experts who want more inexpensive options for those seeking a college degree.

Economists and financial analysts first warned about the growing higher-education bubble in 2009. The bubble, they said, is fed by rising tuition, increasing enrollments, and crushing school debt that often can’t be paid by recent graduates who can’t find a good-paying job in a down economy.

And just as Americans were urged to invest in tech companies before the dot-com crash of 2000, or to buy property while housing prices skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, Americans are encouraged today – by everyone from family members to lawmakers – to sign up for college classes, even if it requires massive loans.

For-profit colleges’ expansion of online education has helped feed the sector’s massive growth, but it might be web-based education that prevents the disastrous effects of a burst economic bubble, educational technologists said.

Students could earn degrees for a fraction of the current costs if more than just a handful of colleges and universities embraced free open-source educational material and created web-based classes that didn’t include the technological bells and whistles that cost so much, said Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People, a free online school launched in 2009.

“Universities are conservative,” said Reshef, whose university has enrolled 900 students in 115 countries. “They’re not very open to new methods of delivery … and they too often feel they should have best-looking technology, filled with interactivity and multimedia options and other [features].”


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