Two of the most consistent trends in higher education are the explosion in its cost and the increasingly corporate mentality that dominates university governance. Witness the recent incident at the University of Virginia where the Board of Trustees’ ousted a highly respected president only to reinstate her after public outrage, or the University of Missouri’s battle against the highly subsidized university press. The expansion of online education represents yet another development spurred on in part by the corporate mentality running most American universities. A fledgling company called Coursera, for instance, just announced that a dozen of the nation’s best universities agreed to join their venture, allowing video access to classrooms where lectures will stream around the world through variegated online platforms. Some of the most esteemed universities in this newfangled partnership include Duke University, California Institute of Technology, Rice University, Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, and Stanford University, inter alia. At this juncture, universities will offer the courses free of charge, albeit with an option for students to earn credit provided they pay extra fees and pass additional assignments.
We ought not to ignore the few upsides of online education. Expanding access and erasing prohibitive costs are both positive developments. The ability to spark an interest in learning and higher education with a peak inside some of America’s most dynamic classrooms provides students otherwise predisposed against higher education with an opportunity to rethink the possibilities. It also provides prospective students an important look inside a university classroom, allowing them to gauge the quality of instruction, greatly improving their college decision, instead of making the plunge blindly. Moreover, the flexibility of the online platform may suit some individuals better than the traditional classroom model, particularly those with busy schedules or those who desire employment in industries where certificates or associate degrees suffice. Yet, we cannot ignore the paradoxical fact that online education may also expand the possibility for students to learn even less, while the credentials they earn may also lose or lack the value promised.
No matter how sophisticated the online platform utilized, this development represents a radical shift in the traditional university paradigm. Traditional university education consists of a student-professor relationship in physical space. At its best, this relationship has a highly personal quality to it. Online education may sever this important relationship in deleterious ways. It often views knowledge as the type of thing that is merely “passed on,” without any active participation by either professor or student. Too often, however, material goes from the mouth of the professor, through the ears of both, but through the minds of neither.
While students and professors engage in discussion through online forums, the inevitable temporal gap between responses means it lacks the atmosphere of challenge and riposte or Socratic discussion of a physical classroom (failing to improve the student’s rhetorical and linguistic skills). Online education risks being a one-size-fits-all monologue from the professor, rather than a productive dialogue where students learn from professors and professors learn from students. It may disincentivize professors from learning from their students, which is especially important in emphasizing the collaborative nature of the learning process. “The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is,” says UVA professor Mark Edmundson. In other words, online education may have an incredibly anonymous and abstract feel to it, rather than the personal quality provided by many of the best educators.
Giving someone already prone to procrastination the opportunity to complete assignments on the computer, without supervision, feedback, and motivation, may further their academic decline and reinforce a lack of academic rigor. We must also fear for-profit institutions that offer low-quality content, completed easily, in exchange for basic credentials. These credentials may sound enticing upon starting a program, but may not get the graduate much upon completion—except for accumulated debt and lost opportunities in the meantime. This concerns me especially with first-generation college students, often from immigrant backgrounds, or students attending high schools that lack adequate staff and resources in guidance offices charged with handling the college application process for students. It should make us all uneasy when something sold under the banner of expanding educational access is—oh, by the way!—also a potential “cash cow” for universities. If an individual seeks merely a credential or a certificate, perhaps an online program is best for them, rather than doling out thousands for a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. As soon as employers begin accepting widely certificates and credentials as sufficient, however, the American obsession with credentialism—already at dangerous levels—may explode further.
My hope is that online education prompts university administrators and presidents to have a real conversation about their value-added, asking themselves what is lost when students stay within the lonely and solipsistic confines of their rooms to “learn” digitally, rather than occupying the dynamic space that is most college classrooms and campuses. Until studies indicate that learning over the Internet is better, or at least on par, with traditional forms of learning—there are no extant studies showing this to be the case—we ought to view the expansion of online education, and its replacement of the traditional paradigm, with some skepticism.