As is made clear by the readings for today – particularly the New York Times article – the internet is drastically altering education in two ways. Firstly, the internet has provided an incredible technical tool for universities and other educators to make their courses widely available. Secondly, the internet’s ethos – free, easy access to uncensored information – has infected a large swath of educators, encouraging them to rethink the way in which our society trains and educates its youth. Let’s take these two aspects in order.
It’s not difficult to see the enormous advantages that an internet classroom can have over a physical one. For starters, the internet removes almost all logistical constraints – no need for a classroom that can fit all the students, and no need for a commonly scheduled time that works for every student, for instance. Whereas before classes had to be held in specific locations at specific times, the internet allows students to take in their lectures at any time, in any place. Now you can go to class in sweats (oh wait, that’s nothing new). It’s easy to see why university administrators – and students who aren’t fond of waking up for early classes – are thrilled by the prospect of technology that allows you to watch lectures when students are awake, alert, and actually interested (if you’re watching the lecture voluntarily, you probably won’t be checking facebook the whole time).
Although the technical details of the internet explain why making virtual classrooms has such allure, it is really the change in attitude about access to knowledge and education that is driving the proliferation of online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I believe that this evolving attitude comes directly from ideas about the internet being, at heart, open, cheap, uncensored, egalitarian, and accessible to all. Consider the mission of Wikipedia: to provide free, accurate information to everyone worldwide. Open Yale Courses and other similar initiatives all have in mind similar goals: to take what was previously an extremely expensive product available to a select few (like a complete Encyclopedia Britannica) and turn it into a free product that can be accessed by anyone, at any time, for free (like Wikipedia). To most, this is a cause for celebration; for a few, it is a cause of consternation, as they realize that:
Will it Work?
Before we get too excited about a future of all-online universities, let’s remember that we’re all still Yale students for now – we don’t yet know whether virtual education will become the norm. For now, the vast majority of those taking online courses (69%, in Yale’s case, according to the New York Times), are independent learners – adults who are taking the courses to exercise their minds or to explore an interest. The next generation of engineers is still being trained on college campuses, not online. I believe that there are two very important functions of an institution of higher learning that online educators have yet to successfully replicate. The first is the community of a university, and the attendant benefits of integration into that community; the second is an effective evaluation/grading system.
Consider the demands that we place on a university: between the time they matriculate and graduate, we expect students to transform from snotty high schoolers who know little about the world into wise, well-mannered and well-adjusted adults. Surely all the skills required for adult life aren’t taught in ECON 110 or ENGL 120 – or even CPSC 183! If we expect universities to be centers of socialization, can an all-online university ever be successful? I believe that we will have to change our expectations about the goals of a university education (to more technical and less social ones) if online education is ever to reach a wider audience than casual adult learners. Furthermore, we should consider the functions of a university campus – it is a hub of intellectual thought and research. If the campus becomes little more than a studio for the production of lectures to be put online, surely it will lose some of the vibrancy and academic exchange that we now associate with universities.
Grading and Accreditation
Beyond the normative argument that the current university system has important benefits, there is a practical argument to be made against online education: no one has yet discovered an effective and simple way to perform one of the most important functions of a university – giving its students a grade. Programs like Open Yale Courses do not give feedback to someone auditing a course, and besides courses in very technical subjects, MOOCs are not able to provide their students with certificates of completion or any other accreditation. Like it or not, educational institutions are more than just places for students to learn – they are sorting mechanisms for employers. A university degree tells employers that an individual is capable of performing at a high level (and the high price of college is related to the large spike in earnings that a college graduate can expect). Until MOOCs provide degrees or certificates of completion, they will not be acceptable substitutes for regular universities.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is hard for anyone to say what the future holds for online education, but there is little doubt that the tools the internet provides will continue to be integrated into our current model of education. In fact, it is likely that our education system will be changed in significant – though hard to predict – ways by the arrival of this disruptive technology. In particular, it seems likely that online education can be a boon for those in developing countries and for employed adults who wish to continue learning. Given the poor alternatives currently available for these two groups, online education has the potential to be an extremely important tool in providing low-cost (but hopefully high quality) education to them. However, whether online education can drastically alter the core of our system of higher education is yet to be seen. At best, it will lower the cost of an elite education and ultimately raise levels of education and productivity across the workforce – but we won’t know until further along in our young experiment with online learning.