Elite Legal Counsel:
Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma. - The Wizard of Oz (1939) MGM Studios
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the degree mills, many well respected universities are now making their coursework available to the public, many of them offering access completely free of charge. Innovative collaborations such as Harvard and MIT’s edX and Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan’s Coursera boast certificate programs that allow anyone with the drive, a computer and access to the internet the chance to learn from some of the world’s most elite and competitive institutions.
These programs stand apart from online for-profit educators by completely sidestepping (for now) the very same element that the majority of online schools are selling -- an easily obtainable, long distance diploma. Instead, edX and Coursera are primarily about the experience of learning. That’s not to say that a completion certificate from one of these programs wouldn’t impress an employer or help the bearer gain leverage but the desired outcome is not the diploma but rather the knowledge. This dichotomy appears to be the last hurdle in the online learning debate. If and when the split is reconciled the floodgates will open and every established university will have to offer some type of virtual learning program in order to stay competitive. Traditional institutions may cling to the standard of actually attending but if the diploma for-profit model wins, physical presence on campus may well become a vestige of the past.