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Is Online Education the Answer?

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There is a great deal of enthusiasm -- usually outside of formal university settings -- for the potential of online post-secondary education. It is sometimes thought that online courses available for free or for very low tuition can allow anyone in the country or the world to gain a top-notch baccalaureate education, and the escalating costs of existing universities will be squashed. Colleges face the revolution that has already hit music and book publishers -- the Internet swamps traditional methods of transmission and publication, and whole new consumer experiences and business models are created. An engineer for a major computer company I talked to on a plane recently caught this mood exactly, when he said to me, "I'm sorry for you -- your industry is doomed. College education will soon be purchased through the iTunes store as an app."

This impression is perhaps supported by developments in the past year -- the extensive free course offerings available through iTunes University, the partnership created by several leading universities under the umbrella of Coursera, and Salman Khan's teaching videos at the Khan Academy. It is certainly true that there are rich, well-developed course materials available in these Internet neighborhoods and elsewhere.

So what is wrong with this picture? Is it possible to gain the education and the intellectual development associated with a traditional bricks-and-mortar university curriculum through a largely online course of study? Or are there large defects in the learning model associated with online instruction that mean that the quality of educational outcome is inevitably lower on average?

A couple of things seem fairly clear. First, people learn in many different ways. Abraham Lincoln had only a few months of formal schooling, but he spent several years of study in the Library of Congress as a Congressman from Illinois, and he read literature and history very intensively. So his understanding of politics, agriculture, religion, war, and economy all derived from self-directed study. The resources available on the Internet are stupendous, and there is no doubt that highly motivated, intelligent young people throughout the globe can learn an enormous amount through self-directed study using the resources now available. The Internet can be for a few of us what the Library of Congress was for Abraham Lincoln.

But this is a high standard for the student. It requires discipline, sustained commitment, and a plan of learning that most young people probably do not possess (and of course, most of us did not possess when we were 18 years old either). This is one of the key advantages of a university education. A college curriculum, guided by professors who stimulate and coach the student, makes it possible for a much wider range of young people to make this intellectual transition.

Second, simply having access to bodies of knowledge through a repository of books or web pages, whether it is a library or the full resources of the Internet, is not the same as an extended and developing educational experience. A young person needs to gain a handful of meta-level skills through his or her development following high school -- creativity, imagination, collaboration, analytical powers, ability to reason and communicate effectively -- and cultivating these skills in the young person is one of the most difficult assignments we give the college professor. The professor needs to design a classroom experience and a body of work materials that help to bring out these skills in the young person over time. This process is more similar to the process of coaching a ballet dancer than it is to drilling French grammar exercises and conjugations.

Moreover, there are very large differences in the learning process depending on the discipline and the nature of the content of the field. It may be that learning accounting principles is reasonably amenable to online education, because of the factual and problem-solving content of the discipline; whereas learning to analyze and discuss complex literature and philosophy is least amenable to online education, because of the need for substantial interaction and dialogue in developing the relevant skills.

One way of encapsulating my own hesitations about online education is by referring to the distinction between the absorption of content and the maturation of intellectual abilities. If the goal of a certain field of education is that the student should become familiar with a discrete body of facts and problems, perhaps online education is well suited to this field. If the goal is to develop the student's intellectual capabilities, however -- asking the right questions, formulating a hypothesis, pulling together the basis for a compelling argument or explanation -- then merely exposing the student to a list of materials and quizzing him or her on the content will not suffice.

None of these points is intended to show that online education is a false start. In fact, in my own teaching I'm inclined to favor a blended approach that uses the power of the Internet to expose students to a much broader range of materials that a traditional course syllabus can do, while at the same time maintaining the personal interaction and dialogue that stimulates the development of the students' own thinking skills. In fact, incorporating video lectures from iTunes University seems like a very fruitful way of deepening study of particular topics. But I think the evidence does not support the techno-optimism expressed by some that online packaged course systems can replace the professor-mediated learning experience of the traditional university classroom and laboratory.

(There is a good degree of overlap between these concerns and those expressed about current shifts in American expectations from higher education in Martha Nussbaum's recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I don't think that the outcomes that Nussbaum is looking for are likely to ensue from a largely online education.)