Online Courses May Be the Future of Education, But That is Not a Good Thing

One of the first things I did in the first month after I graduated from college last May was to subscribe to The Economist. As an international relations concentrator, I had become accustomed to reading 300 pages of dense academic literature a week and was determined to fill the sudden dearth of intellectual stimulus and continue to educate myself. College, unfortunately, does not last forever. But can it?

Online classes are stretching the boundaries of the classroom and making it easier for working adults to remain students even if they have completed formal undergraduate or postgraduate education. And for individuals who do not have the opportunity or means to devote four years of their lives to attend college full time, the ability to take classes on the internet is a welcome alternative.

As college communities morph from idyllic campuses in New England to 36,000 students studying world music at their computers across the globe, I cannot help but express concern at the ways in which the internet is being used as a proxy for the interaction between teachers and students in a physical classroom.

I say this with the full disclosure that I had the luxury of attending a liberal arts college and sitting around a table with 11 other students, discussing cross-cultural migration. I vaguely remember the syllabus, the reading list, and the essays I wrote for “Belonging and Displacement,” but what I cherish most is the relationship I developed with my professor who, five years later, still sends me e-mails to ask what I am up to. She has remained an adviser and confidante, long after I completed her freshman seminar, and continues to guide me through my post-college decisions.

Online courses, no matter how carefully developed, cannot replace the lived experience of attending class, asking questions, and arguing with that annoying student who never does the reading but still thinks he is entitled to voice his opinion on it. And they certainly do not offer students the education they gain outside college classrooms, from living in dormitories to participating in extracurricular activities to complaining about dining hall food.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered by several world-renowned universities including MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, certainly have their advantages. They are free of charge, and while they do not offer college credit, some of them do offer a certificate upon course completion. Unfortunately, the attrition rate is fairly high – only 5% to 10% of students complete the MOOCs they enroll for. Evidently, watching a video online does not provide students with enough motivation to complete their course assignments.

Online courses offer a creative mechanism to learn outside the traditional classroom model. They make higher education more accessible as they massively reduce the financial costs and time constraints that students at four-year institutions face. But as they revolutionize education, online courses should never be mistaken as a substitute for the good old-fashioned classroom space in which idealists and cynics, hipsters, athletes, and geeks come together to debate how to change the world.