In the last ten years online education has been an unstoppable train coming down the track. The latest organizations to jump on? The New York Times and University of Southern California announced last month that they are combining forces to create a new online continuing education program. Both synonymous with higher education and learning, the collaboration between the Times and USC will result in 40-plus new online classes to be offered as recently as fall of 2011. The nine subjects of study that will be included in this new program are writing, cinema arts and film, high school journalism, political science, architecture, world health, business, and leadership.

At this point you might be asking yourself, why is the New York Times even bothering with online education. Doesn’t it have enough to do? The answer lies in the fact that the Times is already a player in continuing and online education via its highly popular Knowledge Network.

Started in 2007 the New York Times Knowledge Network provides continuing education classes on a variety of subjects. Most are not-for-credit, however, the program does offer some certificate programs and courses that provide professional development credits under specific circumstances. Because of its tight connection with the New York community, the instructors for Knowledge Network classes are some of the nation’s leading journalists, celebrated authors, and noted faculty from highly acclaimed universities and private schools.

Is This a New Breed of Online Education?

Now with its collaboration with USC, the Times‘ Knowledge Network can offer an even broader range of classes, pooling from a faculty at USC that many people would give their right arm to even chat with at a cocktail party, let alone learn from in a class. It remains to be seen, however, if these classes and adult learning programs will stay primarily in the not-for-credit continuing education realm, or if Knowledge Network will become a higher education contender in direct competition with degree-offering online schools such as University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. Although USC is definitely a not-for-profit school (while most online colleges are for-profit schools) it will be interesting to see where this hybrid of learning heavyweights will ultimately settle in the world of online higher education. Currently Knowledge Network offers some for-credit classes, but as of this writing it does not offer any degree programs.

This pairing also further drives home the fact that just because you’ve completed a college degree doesn’t mean you stop learning. On the contrary your job and livelihood depend on you staying current on a multitude of topics. Yes, it’s great if you can afford to get a post-graduate degree, however, most people who are firmly planted in reality have to work to earn a living. Organizations like the Knowledge Network allow people to continue learning so that can stay on top of changes in technology, politics, world health, the environment, etc.—all the things we need to know to remain valuable to our employers and the world economy. Unlike the old days our world now changes so fast that in the two to four years it would take to get a post-graduate degree computer technology alone would be completely different by the time you finished as from when you started. Although employers acknowledge that degrees are important (mandatory, in fact), at the same time they want ways their employees to remain on the cutting edge of information, and that accelerated pace is supported through online education programs (degreed or otherwise).

It’s too soon to tell where this combined force of the New York Times and USC will lead in terms of further popularizing online education, but with more high profile universities running to catch the online education train (which has already left the station), the writing appears to be on the wall. Online education is not only here to stay, it’s the wave of the future. So get your ticket and hop onboard now.

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