Education is a touchy subject in every country, and new ideas are usually met with rigorous and healthy debate-though not always polite debate, unfortunately. In the United States, the emergence of newer technologies has led to vigorous argument for several years now on both the potential problems and merits of virtual, distance, and online education.
Amid the sea of television commercials promoting online programs, political pronouncements regarding attempts to solve American educational problem through online technologies, and the boosterism of education reformers, however, some voices have cautioned against rapid and careless online development, especially in MOOCs (massive open online courses). They argue that we still don’t have enough information on the long-term results of online education to put all our eggs in that hi-tech basket.
Some important questions have been raised about the effectiveness and quality of MOOCs in specific, and whether that form of online education is the panacea many have hoped. For example, I. Elaine Allen, one of the authors of a recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group said, “Institutional opinions on MOOCs [massive open online courses] are mixed…some praise them for their ability to learn about online pedagogy and attract new students, but concerns remain about whether they are a sustainable method for offering courses.”
This has led many critics of online education to make strong cases against it. Here are three of the most significant of these arguments:
- MOOCs do not end inequality. Professor Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech argues in The Atlantic that California State University’s recent decision to offer some of its largest general education courses as MOOCs through Udacity, while it might ameliorate the beleaguered system’s perpetual financial crisis, will do so at a very high cost to the state’s students. He points out that the majority of students in the Cal State system are minority students who suffer from a poorly-funded and inadequate public school system; the majority of them lack command of even the most rudimentary skills of English and math. Bogost believes that the allocation of funds to a private-for-profit company will not solve the problems of under-prepared remedial students emerging from the K-12 system to fail at the college level. He writes, “the answer to underfunded, lower effectiveness primary and secondary education requires subsidizing a private, VC-funded bet made on a roulette wheel fashioned from the already precarious prospects of a disadvantaged population.”
- MOOCs are unsuccessful at increasing graduation rates. John Markoff of The New York Times writes, “If as few as 20 percent of students finishing an online course is considered a wild success and 10 percent and lower is standard, then it would appear that MOOCs are still more of a hobby than a viable alternative to traditional classroom education.” This is an important point: sinking graduation rates and criticisms of teacher effectiveness have many turning to the possibilities of online education.
- Online education may not offer the best kind of education. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, dean Doug Guthrie of the George Washington University School of Business asked an important question about MOOCs in general and Coursera in particular. He asked, “Why should we be impressed that an online course can reach 100,000 students at once? By celebrating massification, advocates of Coursera elevate volume as the chief objective of online learning. Is that truly our goal in academe?” He argues that while “Interactivity and customization are the fundamental advantages of online education,” because technology allows faculty to create many different relationships with and between students and possibly track students on a more individual basis, the MOOC model so far fails to deliver this. He writes, “The MOOC model is fine for the informal student or academic dabbler, but it is not the same as attaining an education. Whether face to face or online, learning occurs when there is a thoughtful interaction between the student and the instructor.”
These are important points, and they beg some relevant questions about the priorities of many education reformers. For example, a standard criticism of education reformers is that large lecture-hall courses are ineffective and do not meet the needs of today’s students. However, Ian Bogost points out that such criticism is meaningless if we think that the solution is the even more impersonal MOOC. His concerns are similar to those who argue that the digital divide prevents underprivileged students from gaining important skills and becoming as competitive on the job market as their more tech-experienced colleagues.
The solution, perhaps, might be to offer both MOOCs and traditional courses as options for all students. Those who are comfortable and successful at working independently might opt for the MOOC, while those who prefer more direct contact and guidance should be able to take traditional courses with a smaller student-teacher ratio. Because one thing is very clear: online education technology offers tremendous potential and will not simply go away. It is our job as educators and students to determine the most effective uses of that technology.
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