Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning

Open online courses open up higher education to a wider population, but they are not as beneficial as actual classroom learning.

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Joshua Kim is the Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College.

Excitement about the potential for open online courses to disrupt the higher education status quo is coming from all sides of the ideological spectrum. The successful Stanford open artificial intelligence course, with 150,000 "students," and the subsequent $60 million Harvard/MIT edX announcement (not to mention the for-profit Coursera and Udacity spinoffs) are driving great expectations that higher education will finally mirror other information industries in leveraging the Internet to scale. The latest example of this enthusiasm comes from two distinguished educators affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford: John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe.

In a May 30 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled " Chubb and Moe: Higher Education's Online Revolution" they write:

Over the long term, online technology promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education. The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

To paraphrase, H.L. Mencken, Chubb, and Moe's prescription of open online education to solve the complex cost and access diseases of higher education is "clear, simple, and wrong."

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The fundamental error that Chubb and Moe make is to conflate "online education" with "open online education." Online education, when done right, is all about the interactions between and across learners and teachers. Spend time in any well designed online course and you will be struck by the level of engagement and dialogue between the faculty members and students, as well as the density of discussion between students. The development of robust collaborative tools, such as course discussion boards and blogs, allows a class to transcend the traditionally scarce space for discussion found in a face-to-face classroom, where only one person can speak at once. Asynchronous (not at the same time) collaboration tools allow for both thoughtful responses and dialogue, and much richer discussions than is usually possible in a face-to-face class. Traditional online courses and the massively open online courses (edX, Stanford A.I., etc.) are therefore not the same thing, as the massively open online courses do not permit dialogue between faculty and students on an individual basis (too many students).

Efforts such as the Harvard/MIT edX project are wonderful developments, but massively open online courses are not substitutes for the learning that takes place in traditional courses (whether delivered as face-to-face, online, or in a blended method). Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It's about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty. If you believe that one of the most important attributes of post-secondary education is the development of relationships between faculty and students, experts and learners, then the advent of massively open online courses does not represent a substitute for the traditional course.

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We should all join Chubb and Moe in celebrating the growth of open online courses, and the investments being made in these courses by top institutions and foundations. But we should be very cautious in claiming that open online courses are the solution for solving access and cost problems in higher education.  

Open online courses are terrific developments for the institutions that are offering them, the professors who are teaching them, and the lifelong learners that will participate in them. Greater transparency, more investment, and more availability are always welcome developments in higher education. 

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What we should avoid, however, is confusing open online education with traditional online courses. When we do that we forget that a true education is about more than the delivery of content. If we want to extend the benefits of higher education then, as a society, we will need to invest in higher education. There are no technological shortcuts.

Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale. It is this lack of scale that in the end makes higher education so expensive, and so valuable.