Wednesday 18th July 2012

by sophie

Yesterday, Coursera, an online learning company founded by two Stanford scientists, announced its plans to expand and include additional major research universities. Naturally, this article  drew a slew of comments, reigning from praise to outright condemnation.

Since I am a very impatient person with a natural distaste for politics (who also believes that any newspaper article that has more than one page could be condensed and rewritten), I’m not going to attempt to make some highfalutin, well-constructed argument for or against online education. Instead, I’m just going to give my general feelings towards this debate, formed from my experience (paying thousands upon thousands of dollars) at an Ivy-League institution (institution also being one of my least favorite words in the English language).

Here’s my two cents:
I am a big fan of open-source anything (the Hacker in me) and the idea of making education more transparent and accessible is wonderful, especially if that means we can narrow the education/socio-economic gap and help dissipate the notion of academics as a privilege for the elite.

Ultimately, the discussion surrounding Coursera and online courses seems to point to a big question mark: what is the point of pouring one’s life savings into education when, theoretically, you could get “the milk for free”?

The answer in my mind is, in theory, clear: the money put into schooling is never, ever simply for the lecture notes, but more than anything, the human interactions that one makes. Having the Powerpoints of a Noble Prize-winning professor is no where near the same as going to his/her office hours or even hearing his/her voice live and being able to ask questions. Online education is great for gaining technical skills and a godsend for those short on resources, but it can never replace the value of human contact. Of course an Ivy-League education is worth the price tag: that alone, in addition to being surrounded by some of the most intelligent and motivated students in the world, is more than enough.

Yet I am not sure if I can wholeheartedly stand by the statement. My first semester at Columbia’s Engineering school was miserable– filled with huge introductory lectures taught by professors whose brilliance did not necessarily translate to teaching. The required introductory course for all first-year Engineers was both boring and disorganized and furthermore felt useless (what use was modeling gears in Auto-Cad to Chemical Engineering (my interest at the time), or Computer Science (what I do now)? ). I am fortunate to have found a field of study that I can genuinely say that I am passionate about, yet had it not been for a last minute decision to sign up for introductory Java, that may have never happened. Moreover, and more significantly, had the professor not been Adam Cannon, whose class is often considered one of Columbia’s best, I may have found Computer Science to be just as tedious and uninteresting as I did Chemistry, which I feel is both unfair and untrue about the subject.

Hopefully, the discussion about Coursera will direct attention not only to the benefits of online learning, but more urgently, the flaws of the current state of tertiary education that we pay so much for, especially in the fields of science and engineering. The small discussion seminars constituting Columbia College’s Liberal Arts “Core” are almost universally viewed by students as positive and community-building experiences. The two that I elected to take were genuinely thought-provoking and I feel have had a huge influence on my character. Why should a student who prefers science be subjected to years of lectures and problem sets? All students benefit from interactive environments. In fact, I argue that scientists are even more opinionated and vocal about their beliefs and interests. I think I’d rather be sentenced to hell in an eternal argument between a radical liberal and a Right-wing conservative than Emacs versus Vim.

To close the knowledge gap by raising the value of virtual education while lowering the quality of live teaching is a phenomenon that benefits no one. Online tools are a great innovation, and ought to be viewed as a challenge for traditional schooling to step up to its price tag, rather than a make-do substitute for the real thing.

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