Annu Subramanian: Free open online courses are a public service

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Annu Subramanian

GW could join the ranks of those elite universities that teach free, large-scale online lectures soon.

These massive open online courses, referred to as MOOCs, are taught by college professors and allow anyone with an internet connection to access courses on a range of subjects, from quantum physics to knitting socks. Simply by tuning into one of the pre-recorded lectures on a site that facilitates these classes, such as Coursera or Udacity, a curious person of any age can become a scholar.

And after creating a position for an online learning official to spearhead new programs, GW could start offering free online courses in the near future.

But GW’s not the only institution talking about innovation in online education. These days, MOOCs are hot.

Offered at some of the best universities in the country, from Harvard to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Stanford, they’ve been reported on exhaustively by the media and lauded by philanthropists for opening up education to those who can’t afford or access it.

And the attention these courses are garnering is well-deserved. By creating an effective means to share knowledge with people who can’t afford a steep tuition bill, these open online courses demonstrate how technology can be used as a public service.

Some faculty might be doubtful of how feasible it will be for GW to offer free online courses, as doing so is a financial investment that requires state-of-the-art technology, and the courses might not meet GW’s academic standards. Some have even chided that it would simply be a shrewd marketing ploy.

Knowledge is not a privilege. Information deficits can be closed, and MOOCs exemplify the identity to which so many students who attend GW subscribe. The University has projected a commitment to service in a range of ways, from Michelle Obama’s community service challenge in 2010 to the hugely successful Alternative Breaks trips.

What better way to tell the world that GW is at the cutting edge of education and service than by educating as a service?

In D.C., you can’t miss GW’s new marketing campaign. And the identity these posters, advertisements and apparel hope to convey is that at GW, we are changemakers and that D.C. is our catalyst. According to the rebranding campaign, we’re all future political hacks, have immodest ambitions and something about the stroke of a president’s pen.

This might excite some of GW’s base, but the culture I’d prefer to be a part of is one that the University already emphasizes: a service focus that prioritizes education before its high tuition.

If the University makes the decision to offer MOOCs, it will be democratizing information that people in Argentina, Iceland and Mozambique will be able to access – information they should be allowed to access. See, having the ability to attend a university doesn’t mean we are privy to some knowledge conservatory, and as we continue to learn, we better our chances of advancing later in life.

By offering these opportunities through free online courses – it’s still not attending college, but it’s something – those chances for upward mobility become possible for more people, not just those who have $60,000 to shell out for school every year.

And if MOOCs are offered, should GW play that up for a marketing edge? Absolutely.

We might not know how much the University spent on its rebranding campaign, but we do know the bill was steep. And somehow making an investment in free online courses remains uncertain.

But choosing to offer these courses means people who might have never heard of GW in cities we can’t pronounce would learn about and from the University. They’d know GW cares about giving everyone the chance at a college education. The rest of the world could see the University making strides and investing in a field that lets anyone have a slice of the GW experience.

And that message is louder and more powerful than any catchy slogan or sans serif font.

Annu Subramanian, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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