Patrick Rochelle: GW is showing up late to the party

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Patrick Rochelle

The biggest news in higher education this year has revolved around massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.

For those who haven’t heard, MOOCs allow students from across the world to take online courses and watch lectures given by leading scholars.

These courses have taken off globally. As The New York Times reported Nov. 19, “The expansion has been dizzying. Millions of students are now enrolled in hundreds of online courses.”

For months, GW has debated whether or not to jump on the bandwagon – and if so, to what extent. And Nov. 12, the administration announced that GW Law School Dean Paul Schiff Berman would step down to assume a newly-created post – vice provost for online education and academic innovation. The University has finally made up its mind: GW will enter the fray.

But it shouldn’t.

Lately, an educational arms race has emerged among some of the nation’s leading universities in the name of democratizing education by providing access to millions of people around the world. But GW is already showing up late to the party. It’s unlikely, given the millions of dollars being invested in these programs, that GW can keep up. Already, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have partnered with MOOC providers such as edX, Coursera and Udacity to help establish online programs at their institutions.

It’s easy to see why GW wants to get involved too. With all the hype and promises of revolutionizing higher education, the University doesn’t want to be left behind.

But we need to focus on our finances and figure out how to fund and afford these programs first, rather than just going along with the fad to keep up with the Joneses.

The University is also in the midst of several large construction projects, including the Science and Engineering Hall, the School of Public Health and Health Services and the GW Museum. With all these investments, GW has to be wary of stretching itself too thin.

The fact is, there is no clear way for us to profit from these courses. And we don’t have the resources that other colleges, like Harvard, have to invest in and experiment with them. GW’s endowment stands at approximately $1.3 billion, while Harvard boasts an endowment upward of $30 billion and MIT’s is just over $10 billion. To put it bluntly, our endowment is too small to afford to take risks like these other universities can.

And if we invest in MOOCs, there’s no guarantee that there will be any significant return on the investment down the line.

It’s a concern even University President Steven Knapp has expressed.

“You have to spend something to produce these courses,” Knapp said in an interview with The Hatchet Nov. 13. “And if you spend money producing a MOOC course that you’re not spending producing another course, and you don’t get any revenue in return, that takes away from something else you’re doing. ”

Without a steady stream of revenue coming back to the University, it’s not clear how this endeavor would ever benefit full-time students at GW.

And this model also undermines the personal interactions between teachers and students. If you think getting your professor’s attention in your introduction to economics course is difficult, try asking a question when 50,000 other students also have their hands raised.

Since online teachers aren’t as accessible, educators must ask if online instruction is really worth it if they can’t ensure that students are benefiting from it.

In the higher education world, MOOCs are in vogue. But it’s a fad that GW just can’t afford.

Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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