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Earlier this year, Princeton University announced its intentions to offer a range of courses for free online. Through Coursera, the educational technology company that is facilitating this online learning, Princeton has joined a fast-growing consortium of higher-education institutions that have recently made the commitment to expand learning opportunities beyond their respective campuses. Other universities now offering these online courses include Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

In what have affectionately become known as “MOOCs” — "massive open online courses" — online learning seems to be moving education in a way we haven’t seen quite yet. But is this good? Can online education, especially at the higher education level, become an effective way to disseminate knowledge in the 21st century? The answer to both questions is an emphatic “yes,” though we need to be particularly careful (and critical) of what online education has the potential to accomplish.

First, let’s talk a little about Princeton University — and by proxy, the other elite academic institutions that have chosen to embark on this uncharted territory of providing academic content online. Sorry if I offend any Princetonians out there. 

When one thinks about Princeton, the words “elite,” “privilege,” and “wealth” certainly come to mind. Obnoxiously high SAT scores and nearly impossible admissions standards also seem to typify what it takes to simply be worthy of receiving such an exalted education and the license to walk through its pristine campus.

But this certainly does not describe the vast majority of people anywhere. Thus, this is the beauty of online education. Anyone, anywhere can have access to the vast knowledge, high quality education, and virtually limitless resources that a place like Princeton provides. This is amazing. 

A previously limited-enrollment lecture-style course can now potentially accommodate thousands of students, inviting many more thoughts, ideas, frames-of-reference, and world views to the discussion table. A virtual learning environment, with the capacity to include people from all around the world, can only challenge one’s thinking and push one to consider arguments never before imagined, all a result of this New Age learning community.

Online education looks to grow more rapidly in the next few years — thanks to likes of Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Khan Academy.There are also still some very serious concerns that need to be addressed as we think about the implications of this meteoric rise in providing education online on our society. Online education, unintentionally, has the ability to further expose and perpetuate our nation’s stratification in terms of who simply has access to these online courses, a selection bias of sorts.

Typically, when one thinks of access and lack of resources, images of the urban poor tend to pervade the mind, and rightfully so. Many of the discussions that revolve around inequality seem to dichotomize poor, inner city residents and their wealthy counterparts. 

But when we are talking about the inequities in accessing the internet, images of rural communities should immediately come to mind, as many in this country are getting left behind in this digital age. These maps, part of a billion-dollar effort to improve internet access in the United States, show how stark the contrast is between those communities that have regular access to the internet and those that do not.

Overall, online education is a great thing. The internet has made the world such a small and inclusive place, where the exchange of thoughts and ideas can happen in an instant. But having access to this world is critical. This concern will need to be addressed very intentionally with the expansion of online learning. We will have to figure out how to balance growing in this digital age while not leaving anyone behind.