Who Should Take Online Classes? (They’re Free)
by Christian Perticone - Thursday, April 11th, 2013 In The News

The face of higher education will change entirely within the next ten years? The facelift is already underway at Coursera.org. Stanford Computer Science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng founded Coursera, which is the largest for-profit provider of free online college courses. To educate tens and hundreds of thousands of students at once, these free courses depend on innovative technology and elite professors. During her TED talk, Koller touts Coursera’s revolutionary model of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as offering a superior educational experience. She seems to believe that MOOCs will eventually come close to offering an education as personalized as one given by an individual tutor, (see the video, minute 16:40 on the “Two Sigma Problem”). I suppose it goes without saying that online learning is already as good as, if not better than, a traditional college education. Say what?

A superior free education is available to everyone with Internet access, and you’re taking out student loans for a traditional four-year degree?

This story is actually “old” news. Koller and Ng gave a January interview with PBS News Hour’s Spencer Michels about the benefits and drawbacks of the MOOC model. Coursera professors and students were interviewed. Not surprisingly, most of the interviewees offered overwhelmingly positive feedback about their experiences. According to Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who taught a class on Artificial Intelligence, “I was blown away, and it changed my life…we have shown that the average point score of students taking those classes online is higher, significantly higher…” In contrast, the dissent offered by Stanford Statistics professor Susan Holmes seemed a bit more qualitative: “I don’t think that you can give a Stanford education online, in the same way as I don’t think that Facebook gives you a social life.” And if you think that Facebook does in fact give you a social life, as do many college-aged students, is Coursera right for you?

Not so fast. A Tech Crunch article titled “72% Of Professors Who Teach Online Courses Don’t Think Their Students Deserve Credit” by Gregory Ferenstein appeared on March 22, 2013. Three days later, 184 very well-educated readers were already up in arms over Ferenstein’s slant on the statistic. The seventy-two percent number comes from a survey of 103 of the 184 professors who have taught MOOC classes. The survey and its findings were presented in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Professors Who Make the MOOCs” by Steve Kolowich. It should be noted that nearly all of the feedback, qualitative and quantitative, in the Chronicle article was positive. Still, these two articles raise three important objections /impediments to a new MOOC way of life:

1) Employers trust the institution that puts its name on the degree as much as the degree itself.

2) Universities have no financial incentive to accept credits from free online institutions.

3) Administrators would like to implement their own for-profit versions of MOOCs, but the vast majority of faculty are resistant to the idea.

If a student can’t earn credit for his online class, then he can’t put it toward a degree, which is still what he needs to get a job. But what if employers come to change their minds about MOOCs? That is to say, if employers begin accepting MOOCs as being equivalent to brick and mortar institutional courses, students would have to evaluate the value of a college degree and an educational experience very differently.

All of the above cited articles, interviews, and talks, present MOOC’s as being already superior to a traditional classroom education because online students: learn at their own pace; don’t have to deal with problematic fellow students; interact with peers twenty-four hours a day; watch video lectures many times over; answer comprehension questions before moving to the next lesson; and receive metadata-influenced feedback. At minute 12:20 of her TED Talk1, Koller provides evidence that scores on peer-graded papers and self-graded papers align well with scores determined by professors. At minute 15:55, Koller argues metadata gathered by Coursera administrators allows professors to see what parts of their lectures need tweaking. One wonders, is the Coursera method bulletproof teaching 2.0?

There’s another statistic that Koller fails to address in her TED talk. However, the Newshour interview mentions, “More than two million students have enrolled in Coursera classes, though the completion rate is low.” Like 25 percent low. This could mean that the courses are truly rigorous. The completion rate could also indicate that students often lack the motivation and/or organization to complete a college class without the supervision and inspiration of a real live teacher.

Though these articles would lead you to believe otherwise, professors do more than just lecture. Good professors manage classrooms; keep students engaged; call on everyone; repeat difficult aspects of their lectures in different words; use intuition to gage the mood, pace, and interest of a class; facilitate group work; set up peer study groups; keep attendance; provide grades and constructive feedback on papers; serve as mentors… the list of roles a teacher plays is almost endless. More pointedly, before the Internet there was a teacher named Socrates who practiced “Active Learning” (minute 19:20 of the TED video). Maybe a technological revolution isn’t order; perhaps pedagogy needs to be revisited.

It seems possible that professors are teaching better classes on Coursera because the mode of delivery forces them to focus on teaching. Consider this quote from M. Ronen Plesser, an associate professor of physics at Duke University, “I found that producing video lectures spurred me to hone pedagogical presentation to a far higher level than I had in 10 years of teaching the class on campus.”4  Or as professor Thrun said in the Newshour interview, “It’s not my lecturing that changes the student, but it’s the student exercise…That’s very different from the way I teach at Stanford, where I’m much more in a lecturing mode.”2 One might ask professor Thrun, (who is likely overburdened with research and nurturing his start-up,) why he spends so much time lecturing when he knows it doesn’t engage students.

A good professor may not have a position at an elite university. Good teachers are committed to their craft and invested in their students. Good teachers do, admittedly, depend on smaller class sizes. These teachers, and learning environments, can be found even at lowly community colleges, where course completion rates are high despite the challenges that students face.

Should college bound students take online classes? If MOOCs drive down the cost of traditional education, and democratize knowledge, then they certainly merit attention and investment. However, students have available now all the benefits of educational technology in the person of a well-trained, (and not over-extended,) teacher. Beyond the classroom, colleges and universities offer a host of social and professional opportunities. A traditional college education, for those who can afford it, is still clearly the better choice.

1 Comment

  1. […] student make of the TED talk about online courses mentioned in the previous blog, “Who Should Take Online Classes? (They’re Free)“? The idea that technology will allow us to do away with teachers and classrooms sounds, […]

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