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Boyd: Online Education — Present and Future

by Annie B. Boyd

Many people think that the answer to fixing the cost, quality and access crises in higher education is the use of online courses. Massive Open Online Courses or “MOOCs” have been increasing in availability and popularity. Even the most prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford have experimented with them. But until technology improves, MOOCs can only improve the cost and access of higher education while sacrificing quality or they can keep quality and improve access somewhat while still keeping cost relatively high. This is why online courses should only presently be used in addition to traditional, face-to-face classrooms.

The idea behind a MOOC is that students all over the world can be taught by the most elite professors whenever is convenient for them. This sounds great on paper but MOOCs remove lots of elements of quality that are brought by a classroom setting. First, there is no interaction between professor and student or between students. While there would not be a lot of this interaction in a large lecture class anyway, it is also difficult or sometimes impossible to even ask the professor questions about the material. While I have never taken a MOOC, I took an online course on a smaller scale this past semester. INTR is a course required for many majors at Washington and Lee University. It is a computer literacy class done online by watching videos and then taking tests. I found it difficult to even get help from the professor in charge of this. There are usually about seven sections offered with around 30 students in each. With 210 students, it was very difficult for the professor to be able to answer any questions. Even during testing periods, which were with individual sections, it was frustrating to try to ask questions because of the amount of students. I could not imagine being confused and needing to ask a question in a MOOC. Another problem with MOOCs that sacrifices quality is the form of assessment. In most cases, there are only multiple choice quizzes or tests. While these are sometimes appropriate for some subjects, they are usually not the most challenging or effective way to test students. Especially today, as schools are moving away from memorization of facts and toward application of knowledge, multiple choice is an outdated form of testing. In order to have more comprehensive assessments, classes would need to be smaller and more faculty would need to be hired which would raise the cost and lower the access.

At least for the next few years, the best place for online classes in higher education is alongside traditional classroom learning. Websites like Kahn Academy can improve students learning experience but cannot replace the classroom setting. Additionally, smaller online courses can be helpful for students who need to take classes that their school does not offer. Small online classes can be more interactive through the use of Skype and can have effective forms of assessment since the professor does not have as many students. This is definitely helpful; it just does not help lower costs as classes have to be small so there need to be more faculty. It does, however broaden the access somewhat since students are able to take the courses they need regardless of if their school offers them.

In the future when online courses can offer high quality learning, personalized interaction and effective assessment, they will become a well-recognized form of higher education. With initiatives like Project Minerva, traditional, residential campuses with classroom learning will become a minority in higher education. Technology is being developed that will allow professors to get real-time feedback from their MOOCs that captures student reactions via their webcams. There will be more efficient ways than Skype for large groups of people to communicate which will facilitate a more interactive experience for a large group of people. As online education becomes more credible, colleges will be able to move away from residential settings and follow something like Project Minerva’s model, allowing costs to be cut as campuses will not be traditional and have residential dorms and other expensive buildings and centers but will be able to be more fluid.

While online courses might not be the most effective or respected way of learning in higher education right now. They certainly will start to be. With technological advances, I think society will undergo a cultural shift. The most elite and oldest of the traditional universities will continue to exist for a long time. But, lesser universities will have to shift to non-traditional methods to keep cost down and to continue to attract students.

Annie B. Boyd, of the Class of 2018, is from Martinsville, Va.