Imagine attending your first lecture of the semester. But instead of meeting in Duques Hall, it met on Fedex Field – the Redskins stadium. From your seat in the upper deck, you’d probably have to squint at the 50-yard line just to see the professor below.
And while no university offers lectures in football stadiums, with all the hype surrounding large-scale online courses, class sizes are growing exponentially.
In reality, students are spread out across the globe, sitting behind computer screens and watching a professor thousands of miles away explain the intricacies of the human body or the complexity of a line of poetry.
Elite universities are launching these kinds of free, non-credit, large-scale online courses to make educational opportunities available to anyone with Internet access.
But there are substantial problems with massive open online courses. When you have thousands of students packed into one course, how do you make sure anyone’s actually learning? The truth is, higher education experts haven’t fully figured out how to do that without disrupting or jeopardizing other important aspects of the classroom experience.
The American Council on Education is in the midst of conducting a study of Coursera courses to determine whether or not they should be offered for credit. In the meantime, it remains unclear whether or not they are comparable to actual college-level courses.
Free online courses democratize education by reaching students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a college classroom – a noble goal.
But I am skeptical. And I’m not alone.
The dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Peg Barratt told The Hatchet on Jan. 21 that she fears that open online courses lack the benefits of teacher-student relationships.
“We in Columbian College spend a lot of time building the partnerships between students and our faculty, and you’ve had a lot of small classes where that is possible and you’ve gotten to know your professors,” she said.
Barratt is tapping into something that often goes overlooked in conversations about these big online courses. She argues that what is lost in free online courses is the ability to speak directly with the professor – to have a one-on-one conversation in person. The online platform makes it virtually impossible for a student to ask a direct question.
If a student is struggling and falling behind in a course, a professor is there to answer questions and guide him or her through the difficult material or meet outside of class for additional help. The professor is a resource students can depend on, but in an online platform, that reliability just isn’t there.
A professor’s job is to be someone students can look to for help when they’re confused or lost on a concept. But instead of helping to resolve the issue, free online courses actually exasperate this problem.
The best classes I’ve taken in college have been those with the fewest number of students. Unlike your typical lecture courses, smaller classes allow you to actually get to know your professor.
And while I’m skeptical about free online courses and their role in the future of higher education, I appreciate the debate they have sparked among the higher education community. It forces professors, students and administrators to reconsider what they believe to be the most beneficial approach to teaching and asks people to question what they think is most integral to a college education.
Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.