Online Classes Invite Students to Join the Ivy League, Kind Of
5.9.12 | Earlier this month, education bigwigs Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology entered what New York Times Reporter Tamar Lewin referred to as an “academic Battle of the Titans,” after announcing their newest partnership, edX, which allows people all over the world to take free online courses offered by both universities.
Although these classes are not the equivalent to receiving credit toward a degree at either institution, they would afford those who may not have access to Harvard or MIT the opportunity to experience the delights of listening to some of the sharpest minds on the topics of our day.
As we’ve previously noted, Harvard and MIT are not the only ones embarking on this paradigm-shifting venture. Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan also recently announced plans to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as they’re often called, through their new partnership, Coursera.
Considering the money and resources the partners bring to the table for Coursera, and former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun’s new online endeavor, Udacity, more colleges are almost certain to follow suit. The New York Times reported that Coursera has $16 million in venture capital, and more than 200,000 students have already signed up for the six courses offered by Thrun’s company, which launched just last fall.
Million-Dollar Question: What’s the Value?
As polarizing as new reforms in online education have been, it is refreshing to see such openness in higher education, especially from Ivy League-level schools that are often known more for their steadfast attachment to tradition and less for their progressiveness. But what, exactly, is the value of taking online classes – for free – that do not result in a college credit? This is an open question, and it was the topic of conversation in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” last week.
Four educators and one student weighed in, covering many angles. Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, argues that while “competition is wonderful,” two obstacles limit the potential success of these ventures.
It is a moral obligation to educate the billions of people in this world who are intellectually starved through no fault of their own.
– Walter Lewin, professor of physics emeritus, MIT
“First, students and employers want ‘diplomas’ (skill certification), which random certificates for individual courses probably will not meet. Second, for large numbers, college is as much a socialization and networking as an intellectual exercise, and such accoutrements of college life as booze and sex are hard to provide online,” writes Vedder.
I suspect he wrote the last with a bit of snark. Still, Vedder argues, these new opportunities have great promise to lower the cost of higher education by sidestepping the “three greatest enemies” to achieving this objective: the federal government and its often dysfunctional student aid programs, accreditation agencies with their entrance barriers, and the faculty of traditional colleges. He also suggests that alternative higher education institutions will give students more options, and that’s always a good thing.
“These providers, whose students are not dependent on federal financial aid, can just say no to traditional accreditation and start their own accrediting agency or rely on others to bundle together courses to provide degrees,” writes Vedder. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Indeed, some version of that bundling might already be happening at Peer-to-Peer University.
Jeremy Gleick, a sophomore in bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, praised the rigor of his UCLA online courses and the interaction between students and teaching assistants. But he doubts the same could be achieved in courses opened to tens of thousands.
“Stanford’s recent offering of three engineering classes (Intro to A.I., Intro to Databases and Intro to Machine Learning) shows that in some fields, a rigorous course can be mostly automated, but it is difficult to properly test knowledge in certain subjects: we can’t make a computer grade essays yet,” writes Gleick.
We’re almost there—but as Christine recently wrote in “Jamming the System,” a look at standardized testing, the problems with robot graders are not limited to the grading itself.
Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin College, counters that while “the next phase in the evolution of online higher education has begun,” this new platform should not be viewed as a replacement for on-campus interaction between students and faculty. Instead, it should be viewed as an additional tool for enhancing these interactions. As such, it is appropriate that students who complete these free online programs do not receive credits toward a degree.
“A Moral Obligation”
Some additional points raised by other debaters include the role of lab work in higher education, which would be lost in completing a college degree online (they overlook, however, some innovative digital labs and video game experiences that can mimic lab work—more of which will be available in coming years), and the potential to encourage online interaction between different groups of students who may not talk to each other in the classroom.
“It is a moral obligation to educate the billions of people in this world who are intellectually starved through no fault of their own,” writes Walter Lewin, a professor of physics emeritus at MIT whose three online courses are viewed by millions. Although he supports providing those students with “some kind of certificate—call it a diploma,” he doesn’t think it should equal a MIT degree.
“In my field,” writes Lewin, “students must do labs, which are key to becoming a physicist and getting a degree at M.I.T. These very sophisticated labs cannot be done at anyone’s home. They require dedicated, often very expensive, equipment.”
For more on how some educators are using digital tools to replicate work in a traditional science lab, see:
Kathy Enger, director of the Northern Lights Library Network, takes a different approach. Recalling the student diversity she encountered when she first began teaching at an online university, Enger writes that it “contributed to the vitality of learning and was an unexpected component of the virtual experience.”
“Online higher education has the potential to lower racial barriers, and for this reason alone, institutions of higher education ought to consider offering online courses for credit and as accredited degree programs,” she adds.
Despite the kinks these new partnerships contain, nearly all agreed that they represent an important step in education reform.
“While perhaps not yet a revolutionary paradigm-shift,” writes Decatur, “this is an important step in market diversification and outreach by our leading educational institutions—these are populations that institutions such as Harvard and MIT have largely ignored in the past—and thus a step that was unimaginable only a generation ago.”
Moving Beyond Replicating the Classroom
This diversity of voices in online offerings is an important one. Only around 4 to 5 percent of those who apply get in to Ivy Leagues, and children of color are far less likely to attend college than their white peers. Opening up the opportunities for learning to those who are too often shut out is critical.
On many levels, though, the debate is predictable and, well, unimaginative. Far too often, the people debating this issue are not imagining a truly fundamental shift that can occur when online collaboration around a topic takes off. For one, the gate-keeping role of the professor or expert is challenged. The “sage on the stage” disappears online. Experts can emerge from any ranks in these communities of learning. All it takes is passion and a devotion to the topic. That of course will be threatening for many.
Also, too many are stuck in the mode of replication. The same complaint can be heard from innovators who say that the book on an iPad is still a book. We have simply replicated the page (and the page turning) on a screen, when in fact we should be fundamentally rethinking what a “book” is, given the tools at our disposal.
The same goes for college. It’s not about replicating what happens in a classroom. The online opportunities are about reimaging how learning can happen.
So, what are your thoughts about students receiving what could potentially be a free higher education online? Is it a positive shift that is only natural given today’s technology, or an opportunity that could devalue the importance of on-campus interactions and traditional diplomas?
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