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Technological innovation often carries with it an overdramatic tag beginning with “The death of ...” The introduction of email spelled “the death of snail mail,” as the introduction of cell phones meant “the death of landlines.” Now, the start-up company Coursera, which offers free online courses from top American universities, threatens to shorten the life span of traditional higher education—if you listen to major media outlets like the New York Times and Forbes Magazine.
The presumption may be overdramatic but is certainly not outlandish. Top tier universities are offering free courses not only on Coursera, founded by two Stanford computer science professors, but also on Udacity, a joint venture of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and edX, founded by computer science professors from Stanford and the University of Virginia. The offered courses are the real deal—streamed in real time, with real student-professor interaction (or as much as is possible in an online format). Students have to enroll, complete assignments, and take tests. It’s like an actual college class, minus face-to-face human interaction. Also, it’s free!
This lack of tuition can’t be overstated. Students who can’t afford Stanford or couldn’t get into Princeton can now have a piece, albeit a small one, of elite academia’s pie. Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who is working with Columbia to expand its online presence, says that online higher education has potential to be a positive presence, both domestically and abroad. “It’s part of the service mission of universities to help people around the world,” says Sreenivasan. “This is going to be a way for universities to expand the reach of their faculty members.”
Coursera, Udacity, and edX are a welcome addition to higher education—a step toward the democratization of elite colleges. Then why the death knells for traditional higher education? Because technology is a double-edged sword, and its advancement comes paired with a nostalgia, sometimes a deluded one, for what it replaces. So, is online education the end of the university as we know it? The end of campuses, classrooms, and dining halls? No. Or, at least, not entirely.
The traditional college experience is irreplaceable and boasts intangibles that online education can’t touch. The difference between viewing a lecture on Marxism on the computer and being in a small seminar led by a professor who has written two books on Das Kapital, with classmates who could be neo-conservatives, anarchists, or socialists—well, the difference speaks for itself. Mary Gordon, a Barnard professor who teaches an online lecture on the Modern Novel for alumni, says that while the course can be a great add-on, it can’t replace the undergraduate experience. “Of course there are important geographical considerations that would make it [online education] the only choice, but it is never the best choice for young students,” says Gordon.
On the other hand, Professor Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of America, argues that there isn’t much of a difference between an enormous lecture hall and a live streamed lecture. “Students have no interaction with their professors, and they just go to class,” says Moe. “But you can have seminars where there is interaction. It may well be that all of the courses that have traditionally been given in a lecture format, don’t need to be anymore.”
Universities are rapidly investing in online education, but no one knows how these investments will manifest themselves in the long run. What is clear is that the future of the movement will depend in large part on its monetary potential. Right now, universities are losing money because they’re giving these courses away for nothing. Moe says this has the potential to change in the future: “They are getting themselves into a position where they can benefit over the long haul.”
But consider the fact that Harvard is charging around $200,000 for students to attend its university for four years. Will people pay that kind of money if half of Harvard’s course content is online? Ivy League universities have undoubtedly made tremendous strides in terms of economic, racial, and intellectual diversity, and sites like Coursera will only further that. “With these sites, it doesn’t matter what your race or your gender is, or how much money you make,” says Moe. “The computer doesn’t care.” If the computer doesn’t care, why should the university? And if Harvard can educate all 2,000 of its entering class in person, why not educate its 34,000-person applicant pool online?
Still, there is an irony here: While elite uni- versities are on the cutting edge of technological development, they also tenaciously adhere to tradition. The Greek system and secret societies, such as Skull and Bones at Yale, have carried over from a different era in the life of the Ivy Leagues, when these colleges were geared toward the development of the white male elite into well-rounded plutocrats. Though they have evolved and reformed along with the university, these traditions—including football, an institution that does not add to Harvard’s academic prestige—continue in large part because of nostalgia for the school’s roots, and because they bring in considerable alumni money. With the geographic and economic decentralization of the university this online development proposes, these traditions would take a huge hit. How will the universities, or their rich alums, respond when this happens?
The Internet is predisposed to the ideals of democracy, in the form of the free spread of information. It’s no coincidence that computer science professors founded many of these startups, like Coursera. But elite universities are, well, elite, and they’re not ready to open their doors to everyone. That is why Coursera is such an attractive idea to the elite institution: because it hints toward the democratization of higher education without threatening to hurt the in-person exchange of ideas that makes traditional higher education so worthwhile, and so valuable.
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