Higher Ed online

I’ve read a number of stories on the big news on Harvard going in with MIT on edX– a joint partnership to make their classes freely available on-line.  There’s been a lot of breathless commentary on what a big deal this is (the headline for the Atlantic post is: “The Single Biggest Change in Education Since the Printing Press,” and maybe I’m just a Luddite, but color me unconvinced.  From the Atlantic:

Over the past few years, the tools that could make for really excellent online distance learning have emerged in a piecemeal fashion. We have reliably good videoconferencing, live video streaming, collaborative document editing, and so on. We don’t know how best to translate classroom education to the online realm, but the tools are there, and, sooner or later, someone is going to figure it out.

In such an environment, the dons of elite education could batten down the hatches and try to preserve the limited-supply model that has served them well (see: newspapers, record labels, publishing houses). Or, they can choose to embrace the openness and radically democratic accessibility the Internet makes possible.

This morning two of the top universities announced a collaboration that signals they are taking the latter path: MIT and Harvard are each pouring $30 million into a nonprofit partnership edX, which they hope will make the top-notch faculties and courses of their schools available for free to millions of people around the world — free for anyone with an Internet connection. In presenting edX, the initiative’s new president, Anant Agarwal, called the opportunity presented in online education “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”

If a college education was only about watching professors deliver information with no interaction than this truly would be fabulous.  Alas, I think most college graduates understand there’s a lot more to a college education.  For one, actual interaction with faculty.  And, maybe even more importantly, actual interaction with peers.   Through a number of conversations through the years and my own experiences, I’ve come to believe that in many ways the biggest difference between an elite undergraduate versus ordinary undergraduate education is not the quality of the professors, but the quality of the classmates.

I also want to point out that Harvard and MIT’s “top-notch faculties” are top notch for their scholarship.  I’m sure that many of them are great teachers, too, but that most definitely has very little to do with why they are at Harvard or MIT.  If you really just wanted people to convey the information from Physics or History 101 in a compelling and engaging manner chances are you’d do just as well, if not better, with the faculty from UMass.

And finally, the fact that actually taking, rather than watching, a college course leads to a level of commitment and intellectual engagement that are responsible for a far deeper learning than comes from watching videos.  I, for one, am pretty sure that a lot of the learning I did in college came from studying for tests.  And, we now know that testing itself actually leads to learning.

Now, I don’t want to belittle what Harvard and MIT are doing and I believe that it really serves a positive social value and that many people really may get a lot out of it (just as many people get a phenomenal amount out of reading books).  But let’s not pretend it’s a substitute for an actual college education.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Higher Ed online

  1. John F. says:

    How about those folks who don’t have the financial wherewithal to relocate their family, pay for tuition/books, and cover all the expenses associated with having a family (see: me) but still would like to pursue higher education? Should the limits of an intellect be the barrier, wealth, or the availability of courses? Currently, cost and accessibility are the greatest barriers, and anything that can be done to breakdown those barriers are great steps.

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