This fall marks my twentieth year of teaching. Call me an idealist: The one lesson I’ve learned several times over is that there is no substitute for a teacher’s actual, human presence in the classroom, interacting with students by walking among their desks, glancing at their papers, making sure their eyes are looking at the board.
That said, I have been steeling myself for the brave new world of online education. I’m not a newbie, having taught an online course (on Great Books) some years ago.
Here are five reasons that suggest that the virtual college classroom could become the norm for many students before too soon.
1. Cheaper and Even Free Courses
In an era of nearly-trillion dollar student debt in which the phrase “indentured student” is too often heard, the lower costs of online education are attractive. Advances in technology and video-editing software have meant that, from a university’s perspective, it has become much easier and cheaper to put up online courses, as John Mitchell, Stanford University’s first vice provost of online learning, says in an interview in The Atlantic.
Online courses offered by the for-profits Coursera and Udacity and nonprofit edX– some taught by professors from highly selective institutions like Stanford — are free but do not provide students with credits they could use to earn a college degree.
But that situation is already changing.
2. Universities Are Starting To Accept Credit For Online School’s Courses
Colorado State University’s Global Campus has announced that it will give full transfer credit to students who take Udacity’s free “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” course. 94,000 students have taken the course since it became the first one Udacity offered last year. 98,000 have signed up for the second class which will start in April; it is taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia who is currently on leave from that institution.
The course — which teaches students to build a web browser like Google and to learn the basics of Python, a programming language — is free but getting the transfer credit and a “certificate of accomplishment” cost $89. That’s the fee students must pay to take a test, administered by the Pearson VUE testing group, which has more than 450 testing centers in 110 countries.
Germany’s University of Freiburg, the Free University of Berlin and the Technical University of Munich, as well as Austria’s University of Salzburg, have already given credit for an earlier Udacity course.
3. Recognition of Problems Like Plagiarism
Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that students taking start-up Coursera’s online courses were reporting dozens and dozens of instances of plagiarism. It is a hurdle that online universities face: When the number of students enrolled in a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is in the five digits, how to assess their work, let alone know that their work is their work?
The issue is far from being solved. Requiring students to pay a fee to take a proctored test is a solution edX (which was founded by MIT and Harvard) and Udacity are trying out.
Of course, taking one proctored exam does not mean that students did not plagiarize other work in the course and it remains to be seen if Coursera, edX, Udacity and other online schools will try to create innovative solutions to address the plagiarism issue. As the recent cheating scandal at Harvard involving over 100 students shows, preventing cheating is easier said than done.
4. Some States Are Requiring Online Courses Before Awarding High School Diplomas
If for no other reason, the purveyors of online courses need to take plagiarism seriously very soon because online education is becoming more and more a part of the curriculum for high school students.
Education Week reports that some states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho and Michigan) have laws requiring students to take an online course before graduating. School officials believe that such a course is necessary to prepare students for college and for the business world.
5. In Theory, an Online College Education Is a Great Idea
Free courses taught by professors who are experts in their disciplines that you can take while sitting on your own couch: It’s an idea that sounds too good to be true.
Maybe it is. As the problems with rampant plagiarism, evaluation of student work and transferring credit show, MOOCs are far from being a substitute for college classes at a traditional, four-year, brick and mortar university.
But anyone being able to take a course with an academic who’s a world-expert in their field, be it art history or physics could radically democratize a college education and lessen the line between the haves and have-nots. The flexibility of “attending” class when you have time would mean that people could take classes around their work and family schedules — something that I, as a full-time working mother with a teenage autistic son who has only two child care providers (my husband and myself), believe is an innovation that is definitely for the better.
Mention college now and the first phrases that too often come to mind are “debt,” “student loans” and “what a lousy investment.” I still believe there is no equivalent for being in an actual classroom with a “live teacher” teaching student. But it is certainly time to restore faith in the value of a college education. Could online college classes and degrees provide steps to a solution?
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