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Opinion

Web classes are more accessible and flexible than classroom learning

Online classes definitely make money. But do they educate students as well?

Last semester, I took a course through the University of Pennsylvania. It was an introduction to corporate finance course through the renowned Wharton School. Fortunately, I did not have to commute back and forth from Binghamton to Philadelphia on a daily basis. That would just be absurd.

Then how, you ask, did I take a course from the Ivy League institution?

I learned about the principles of finance right in the comfort of my own living room.

The class was through Coursera, a for-profit educational technology company that offers massive open online courses, more commonly known as MOOCs.

Coursera, which has already generated over $1 million in profit and over $85 million in venture capital, first launched two years ago. Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, both professors of computer science at Stanford University, founded Coursera in April of 2012. The multimillion dollar company was originally partnered with just four universities: Stanford, Princeton University, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. But today it has expanded to 108 universities, and it is still growing.

In addition to Coursera, other companies provide MOOCs. A few that also have high-quality reputations include Udacity, Khan Academy and edX. These companies offer a variety of courses ranging in disciplines from the humanities to hard sciences.

The argument surrounding MOOCs, though, is not whether they generate substantive revenue, as they undeniably do. It is whether their place in the education system is beneficial for those taking them.

Many point out that distance learning provides a false or inadequate pedagogy and that learning through anything other than a professor who stands before you is unsuccessful. But it is important to note that MOOCs, like an in-person class, are wholly what you make of them. A student’s presence in the classroom doesn’t necessarily equate with retaining the information given; one can just as easily go sit in Lecture Hall and spend the entire time surfing the Web instead of actively listening to the professor.

On the contrary, given the scenario that one registers for a basic mathematics class on Coursera, I can only assume that the time devoted to that class would be time well spent because it is something he or she truly wants to learn.

Moreover, those of us here at Binghamton University are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend an accredited university away from home — but for many, that is not an option. Not everyone who wants to learn can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year or has the time required for in-person classes. And that is why MOOCs have hit the ground running: They are both flexible and free.

Of course, nothing can compete with open dialogue between classmates and professors or with hands-on instruction. Those experiences are benefits of attending a university that we should not take for granted. But we should also not be too quick to criticize a platform in which the main and only goal is to educate.

The popularity of MOOCs has even extended globally. Classes in mathematics and computer science have become popular in India, many countries throughout Africa and other impoverished countries around the world. In a New York Times article from November 2012, one woman’s experience with an online course was highlighted: “Ms. Spiegel (NY) befriended women in India and Pakistan through Facebook study groups and started an online group, CompScisters, for women taking science and technology MOOCs.” These unique learning opportunities would not have been possible without the creation of MOOCs.

A major point of contention does arise with the prospect that these online courses could possibly devalue the tradition of attending a costly university. But as we venture further and further into this world of technology, we need to realize that attendance at an accredited university doesn’t always mean success. It is what you know, and what you do with what you know, that allows for achievement.

Editor’s Note: This column is part of a Point-Counterpoint on the success of online education. Matt Bloom’s counter-piece, “Massive open online courses will not  solve socio-economic inequality,” can be found here

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.