The School in the Web

The curious with internet access are no longer limited to ideas fed to them within the constraints of communities or jobs with universities increasingly open free online classes to global audiences. Hundreds of thousands of students follow lectures not for a degree or credential, but for a love of learning. Yet as some course developers look to online courses for a new education model, some professors express concern that free or low-cost courses could undermine institutions of higher learning and reduce jobs for professors. “Many worry that online education is taking away one of the most important aspects of college education – close interaction with the professor and fellow students,” writes Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor, in his Businessworld column. “Principal losers in this emerging trend will be poorer colleges in the US and, perhaps, elsewhere.” Similar criticisms were once slung at public libraries. Schools and students must strike a proper balance on quality, supporting both common understanding of ancient wisdom and diverse ideas that challenge the imagination. – YaleGlobal

The School in the Web

Hundreds of thousands of sign ups for growing numbers of free online classes; some professors worry about a decline in interactions and education quality
Nayan Chanda
Monday, July 15, 2013

A Kolkata girl, Dipanjana, gets up early in the morning to pick fruits of globalisation. Of course, that is not what she tells herself but this is exactly what she does.

She finishes breakfast quickly so that she can follow an online course before heading out to her day job. Dismayed by Kolkata pollution, she is keen to deepen her understanding of how it is part of an entire planetary change. She plants herself in front of her computer with headsets and logs on to the University of British Columbia site to listen to a lecture on global climate change that she has been following for weeks. She is planning to take more courses on environmental issues from the University of Edinburgh and University of Illinois. With a few clicks of a mouse she has been surfing the world of learning to soak it all — free. But like all innovations, online education too has produced winners and losers.

Winners are obvious: knowledge seekers in developing countries and disadvantaged students in the developed world. Like Dipanjana, hundreds of thousands of students from Asia, Africa and Latin America have been logging in to learn about everything — from physics to philosophy, from how to write code to how to repair machines. Twelve-year- old Khadijah Niazi, who taught herself artificial intelligence from her home computer in Lahore, was feted in Davos. But as online education gathers steam with many universities joining to launch Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) — you will hear this acronym often — opposition too is growing. 

As the Web steadily covers the world — 2.4 billion by the last count — and the cost of bandwidth falls and a variety of devices explodes, educationists and entrepreneurs think time has come for expanding the frontiers of knowledge. A recent British study, ‘An Avalanche is Coming’, even suggests embracing technology could save educational institutions. 

Some of the world’s major universities have used the Web to share with the world the knowledge that has long been the exclusive preserve of the lucky ones. Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale have been taping the lectures of many of their celebrated professors and broadcasting them on the Internet. A few purely online universities emerged offering degrees, mostly in business and technology fields, but the established ones resisted granting degrees. That reluctance, though, is softening. Yale has introduced an online summer course where students can complete a course and get credit if their home university accepts it. The fee for one course credit: $3,300. The Stanford University professor who pioneered online courses has launched a for-profit organisation, Coursera, to bundle some 300 courses offered by 62 universities. For completing free courses, Coursera and its instructors may offer a “Statement of Accomplishment.” It also offers special credit for a fee that might be accepted in some colleges. Harvard, MIT and two other universities have also set up edX to offer 63 free courses for which students get a certificate of completion. Massive enrolment in these courses show the excitement it has generated among those thirsty for education.

But the excitement is not shared by many American professors — both of top-notch universities as well as second tier colleges. Many worry that online education is taking away one of the most important aspects of college education — close interaction with the professor and fellow students. (For a student sitting in Kolkata, the problem may look different. As Dipanjana told me, taking part in online fora with students from different countries and different backgrounds was fun, helping her understand diversity of perspectives.) Principal losers in this emerging trend will be poorer colleges in the US and, perhaps, elsewhere. Administrators will be tempted to replace professors with teaching assistants who will supplement online lectures and grade papers. Outsourcing higher education to video lectures from top school may find new victims of globalisation: unemployed professors. 

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal.

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