Opinion

Response Column: Online classes are hardly an education

Despite accessibility, online courses can't compete with classroom conversations and the liberal arts experience

In Friday’s issue of Pipe Dream, two opinion columnists debated the success of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Both of the writers bring up good points. Still, in discussing online classes and the future of education, both columnists ultimately miss a fundamental point — namely, an education received through MOOCs is hardly an education at all.

According to columnist Julianne Cuba, the best thing MOOCs have going for them is that they make money. Cuba is justified in pointing out that MOOCs are more accessible and affordable than a typical four-year college education. But that MOOCs are profitable hardly means they offer a well-rounded education.

In Matt Bloom’s view, the biggest downside to MOOCs is their inability to address economic inequality. Bloom is right in dismissing some of the hype around MOOCs. But Bloom doesn’t go far enough in discounting MOOCs and the role they will play in the future of education.

MOOCs have prominent supporters. Figures like Thomas Friedman and even President Barack Obama, speaking here at Binghamton University no less, have voiced support for online education, citing its accessibility as a key piece in strengthening education affordability.

For those in this camp, MOOCs represent the innovation with the greatest potential to revolutionize the distribution of knowledge since Gutenberg’s printing press. MOOCs’ strongest advocates frame their support in terms of education equity. They claim that free online courses from top professors, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, will remedy issues of education inequality.

The test results, though, are in, and we have the data to grade these claims.

The New Republic organized a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to see who actually enrolls in MOOCs. By showing who takes MOOCs, the researchers have done the academic community a great service.

The New Republic’s survey shows that those who idealize MOOCs as the synthesis of academia and technology are, for now, overestimating MOOCs’ capacity to effect meaningful change. As the survey’s authors conclude, “MOOCs, at least thus far, are serving the world’s haves more than its have-nots.” This undermines the hopes of MOOCs’ most vocal advocates.

In other words, MOOCs, in their current form, are less a force of economic upward mobility than a productive extracurricular for those already in a position of privilege. For most students, MOOCs are the Netflix of academia. They’re ingested passively, without any serious concern for comprehension or retention.

In assessing MOOCs, Bloom and Cuba also both fail for the most part to consider the ways online courses abandon values central to human development and the liberal arts experience, such as intellectual growth and human flourishing. I’ve written about my experience taking an online class before. I came away underwhelmed and disappointed by the lack of discussion with other students.

An online chat room cannot replicate the experience of participating in a Socratic dialogue in the flesh with a professor and other students sitting in the same room as you.

There are hard questions concerning education inequality. What are the parameters of the right to education in America? What roles do the government and technology play in reconciling education inequality? The New Republic’s researchers, as well as our own columnists Bloom and Cuba, could have advanced this conversation by squashing the notion that MOOCs are the academic innovation that will offer a solid, holistic education to all, regardless of economic limitations.

For now, we ought to take MOOCs for what they are — a productive extracurricular, not much different from taking a book out of the library.

Editor’s Note: Matt Bloom’s piece, “Massive open online courses will not  solve socio-economic inequality,” can be found hereJulianne Cuba’s piece, “Web classes are more accessible and flexible than classroom learning,” can be found here

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