A Yelp for Online Learning?

It's that time again when colleges and universities report their admissions statistics, graduation rates and other numbers, and groups compile and analyze those statistics to rank our nation's top higher education institutions. Many students rely on these rankings to help them determine which schools will best fit their needs and where to spend their application fee dollars.

These days, however, students practically need professional advisors just to help them make sense of the college rankings -- more organizations are getting into the ranking business and the way they judge schools is becoming more complex. For many years, rankings focused on the academic quality of the institution, such as the famous, but often criticized, U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Now there is a growing number of rankings focusing on the "value" or "return on investment" a college or university has. Forbes, for example, is more interested in how well they fare after graduation. Some rankings are based on strictly monetary factors like tuition and salaries (Washington Monthly's "Best Bang for the Buck" scores), others on how well the schools prepare students to enter certain lucrative career tracks.

What all of these college rankings are ignoring or missing is that much of it, if not the most important learning takes place off a college campus. Whether entering the business sector after graduating from college or joining a law firm after finishing law school, how to actually do those jobs is often learned onsite. Your college diploma may get you in the door, it is not the best indicator of how well you'll perform or the salary you'll earn over a lifetime.

If additional training is so vital to future career success, where does one go for consumer advice about which companies have the best training plans or are the best sources for offsite education? Right now, for online learning services like MOOCs, only a few rankings or review sites are available. CourseTalk is an early entry into the market. It focuses on customer reviews. There is definitely space yet for a Yelp, Angie's List or Consumer Reports for online education to emerge. MOOCS.com is starting to provide much more detailed reviews and reports about some popular MOOCs.

But we shouldn't get carried away about the importance of rankings. Ranking an educational program, whether traditional or not, in terms of whether it gets you a job or gets you promoted is not the only value that should be considered or even be given top priority. Education is also a value in itself. We learn every time we open a book or watch a documentary, read an article, practice new skills and engage in meaningful exchanges. In fact, these activities make up the majority of our lifelong education. As a result, we become more knowledgable about the world around us, make better choices in life and learn to become better citizens. We need to rethink the value of education to account for these experiences -- money is important, but not as important as the intrinsic value of knowledge. It's time we rediscover the value of learning itself.