With the news of the California bill that could allow state universities and community colleges to substitute MOOCs for their 50 most overcrowded courses coming out last week, everyone’s been talking about MOOCs and online education. Some are blatantly against MOOCs and refer to them as the “dumbing down” of education, such as UC Davis professor Norman Matloff in his recent article in Bloomberg.
Some caution against MOOCs from purely economic purposes, as Steve Lohr did in his article in the New York Times. Lohr examined the disastrous early business models of open-source software and online newspapers pre-paywall, and cautioned that give-away pricing in online education could sent a standard that may lead to colleges and community college being run out of business by for-profit companies providing courses for free. I found this to be a bit of a stretch, as I don’t think online education will ever completely replace universities; online courses will simply be incorporated into brick-and-mortar institutions’ course catalogs in order to save students money.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s William G. Bowen explored a variety of issues surrounding online education in his article “Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education.” Bowen is optimistic but wary about online education: “I, too, am convinced that online learning could be truly transformative. What needs to be done in order to translate could into will?” He makes the important point that it’s difficult to draw conclusions on nascent MOOCs and online courses without the data to support whether they improve learning or are truly cost-effective.
Bowen also called out the need for better, customizable platforms for online education courses. As those who have taken MOOCs know all too well, many companies’ platforms are still not as sophisticated as should be. Finally, Bowen points out the fact that online instruction is alien to most professors, and while this presents a challenge in massive adoption, universities need to make the tough decision to press on and not let fear prevent them from examining online courses.
“I continue to believe in the potential for online learning to help reduce costs without adversely affecting educational outcomes,” Bowen writes. But he strongly believes that online education should not stand alone, but should rather be integrated with traditional institutions, so that face-to-face interaction remains a priority.
I return…to the question of whether online learning is a remedy for what ails higher education. My answer: no, not by itself. But it can be part of an answer. It is certainly no panacea for this country’s deep-seated educational problems, which are rooted in social issues, fiscal dilemmas, and national priorities, as well as historical practices…Uncertainties notwithstanding, it is clear to me that online systems have great potential. Vigorous efforts should be made to explore further uses of both the relatively simple systems that are proliferating all around us, often to good effect, and sophisticated systems that are still in their infancy—systems sure to improve over time.
I’m a big supporter of Bowen’s article, which you can read here, because I can see both sides of the online education argument. Of course online education doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom, and I would never advocate that we should replace traditional classrooms and lecture halls with MOOCs and online classes. And I’ve stated before and will state again that I don’t think MOOCs are perfect — there’s a lot of work to do to ensure that students in MOOCs get individualized instruction, whether through tutors or additional assistants to help struggling students. Again, the online experience of taking a course can’t come close to taking a course you’re passionate about in an institution with motivated, intelligent students and a dynamic professor — this is why online courses will never stand alone, but rather will simply be integrated in established institutions’ course catalogs.
Because the problem is, the United State’s higher education system charges top dollar for its services, and I’ve heard stories from too many students who had to pay for extra semesters and quarters because they can’t get into the classes they need before they’re due to graduate. Classrooms are overcrowded and courses are being cut, so if cheaper online options can help students get the courses they need in time to graduate, all the better. With tuition as high as it is, getting students out in four years is absolutely critical, as the majority of students have to take out loans to afford college at all, let alone pay tuition for additional terms. While it’s far from perfect, online education presents a solution to the pressing problems of overpriced, overcrowded university courses, and schools and faculty need to make decisions about online education sooner rather than later..
What are your thoughts on online education? Sound off below, or reach out via Twitter to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.