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Thursday, February 7, 2013

If the Point Is Simply to Hand Out More College Degrees, Why Bother With the Courses at All?

Posted by on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 12:07 PM

Who needs affordable public universities when you can get a college education FOR FREE??!!

Students may soon be able to receive college credit for the free online courses that are reshaping higher education.

The American Council on Education announced Thursday that it is recommending degree credit for five courses offered by Coursera, a Mountain View-based company that provides "massive open online courses" from leading universities.

[...] Coursera, which now offers more than 200 open courses from 33 institutions, plans to seek the council's credit recommendations for more classes in the future, Ng said. Many of the courses are automated and require little oversight from instructors.

Yeah, because the least important part of a high quality education are the teachers.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not against exploiting new technologies. I'm absolutely loving all these free online courses (for example, Harvard's "Justice with Michael Sandel"). But taking an online course with "little oversight from instructors" is not the same thing as going to college. And I'm more than a little worried that cash-strapped lawmakers are going to seize upon these "free" and "low cost" online courses as an alternative to adequately funding higher education.

The history of higher education over the course of the 20th century was one of dramatic democratization. What used to be an opportunity reserved almost exclusively for the children of the elite was transformed into an American birthright, helping to build a thriving middle class in the process. Our nation's vast system of public and private colleges and universities is the envy of the world. I'm not saying it's perfect the way it is, but it's certainly served us well.

So while, sure, it's always reasonable to explore ways to deliver these services less expensively, cheapening a college degree benefits nobody. Which is, I'm afraid, what we are in the process of doing.

 

Comments (19) RSS

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orino 1
At most large state universities, you pay a gazillion dollars to attend classes held in giant auditoriums, taught by teaching assistants until at least your junior year. This is better than an online class... how?

When I was in college, most of my fellow students were there because they had nothing better to do. Every recent college graduate I know is working as a barista (if they're working at all). I would suggest the current state of education does not serve us well, not at all.
Posted by orino http://www.scootinoldskool.com on February 7, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 2
@1 is correct. I remember one of my first year Econ classes was in an auditorium at SFU that seated 1200 people. The only way to learn anything was to walk with the prof after the class on the way back to the Quad where his office was, and ask questions then. Just going down all the steps to the mikes took a long time, and then some frat guy popped in front of you, and your question would never get asked in time.

But a good teacher makes all the difference. I've been in small classes of six students where the prof couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag (we used to use paper bags to keep things in, back in the old forestry-equipped days before pinterest), and in large 600 person classes where the prof would keep you spellbound and involved, learning more than you ever could online.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on February 7, 2013 at 12:30 PM · Report this
amyl 3
I used to work in the eLearning Department at a local community college. A well designed online course takes a lot of work to set up, but depending on how it's designed it can practically run itself. @1 and @2 have it right, you are getting the same level of teacher participation with a massively open online course (MOOC) as you are with a giant lecture class taught by a TA, and MOOCs can dramatically lower the overhead (no buildings to heat, janitors and security to pay, etc.). The world of online education isn't all University of Phoenix anymore, there are some really good classes taught online. And MOOCs are free, which I would argue isn't the cheapening of college but making learning accessible.
Posted by amyl on February 7, 2013 at 12:51 PM · Report this
4
I attended a presentation by Ng this week and he completely sold me on Coursera as the future of higher education. The courses are built and refined continuously and while the "no teachers" thing is a bit misleading, the opportunities for discussion by other students, past students, and experts are all there for those who want it. Through extensive analysis, they can quickly identify problem areas and improve the experience almost immediately.

I have found Coursera to be a better experience than the official online courses offered by WSU, and as mentioned, the opportunity to connect with leading experts is often simpler on the Internet than it can be in real life.
Posted by diggum on February 7, 2013 at 12:51 PM · Report this
5
"The history of higher education over the course of the 20th century was one of dramatic democratization. What used to be an opportunity reserved almost exclusively for the children of the elite was transformed into an American birthright,"

Yep, but now we're not as rich as we used to be, so we have to cut back on the frills and focus on the things that really matter. BA'S for future baristas are all well and good, but what the country needs is more computer programmers. I think a combination of self-study via the internet and hands -on apprenticeships is the best way to build a class of skilled technicians and tradesmen. Let the 4-year university go back to being what it was originally designed to be, a place for rich kids to play.
Posted by Ken Mehlman on February 7, 2013 at 12:52 PM · Report this
6
And if you are a kid in a third world country who through a miracle and the goodness of Bill Gates has managed to obtain access to a laptop, electricity and the internet all at the same time, it's a game changer. You prove you can hack these courses, you apply to a US school, cross your fingers, and hope. There are so many kids with amazing potential across the world who are completely locked out from higher education by virtue of geographic location and poverty. Screw that. Bring college to them. Plus, I know I'd rather have done college level classes from home rather than suffer through high school, and I've had saved a year or two of college tuition, there's that too.
Posted by gnot on February 7, 2013 at 12:59 PM · Report this
lauramae 7
Wow, 5 that is extremely short-sighted.

Higher education is far more than a personal commodity and as a society I believe it would be helpful to remind ourselves why it is important to have a well-educated population.
1. A bachelor's degree isn't necessarily a training program that translates to a specific job.
2. A bachelor's degree with a well-rounded curriculum does translate to individuals who are better able to cope with economic ups and downs. The unemployment rate for people with out college degrees is quite a bit higher than it is for college graduates, for instance.
3. If a university is offering courses that you must take with a TA and with 299 of your cohorts, then THAT UNIVERSITY needs to find a way to invest more in the education of its undergraduate students.
4. If more people got degrees in specialized 4 year training programs, like computer programming, there would be a glut of programmers and not enough jobs for them.
5. Field specific gluts happen all the time. There is now a glut of MBAs. and in the 1980s there were far too many BS in Business graduates.

Posted by lauramae on February 7, 2013 at 1:04 PM · Report this
8
@7 My brother and I are both college graduates in our late 30s. He's a carpenter and I'm in law enforcement. Both of us are a little better at our jobs because of stuff we learned in college, but not enough better to justify the considerable sum of tax payer money that the state of New York spent to educate us. I'm not arguing that a 4-year degree is completely worthless, only that there are more cost effective ways to give people the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.
Posted by Ken Mehlman on February 7, 2013 at 1:20 PM · Report this
Mittens Schrodinger 9
One of the problems with "democratization" of the college experience is the commoditization of learning. When you commoditize education without strengthening and maintaining the system for accreditation, classes become molded by market forces, such as quickest to graduation, easiest to get into, and least academic rigor for the reputation of the school ruling the market and being the selling points of degree programs (these become the points of value for the students). Seattle U is now offering 1-year MBAs. And "executive leadership" MBAs have become more a really expensive series of networking lunches with a 3-letter payoff at the end than an actual academic learning experience.
Posted by Mittens Schrodinger on February 7, 2013 at 1:28 PM · Report this
10
Coursera was never meant to replace real universities. I graduated from college in 2005 but I still want to learn stuff. Now I can take quality courses in subjects I never formally studied for free. It might not be as good as attending in person, but it's much more in-depth and interactive than say, reading a book by yourself. Also, colleges give credit for AP exams, so it's not like the concept is unprecedented.
Posted by Keenan C on February 7, 2013 at 1:32 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 11

The whole thing was the case of correlation and causality not being linked.

Social Reformers said to themselves, well, the rich go to college, so if we all go to college, we'll all be rich. What they didn't realize is that college for many who are wealthy is just an elongated adolescence, where one can get a "Gentleman's C" as a legacy, and exit with a diploma and a path to the Presidency in Dad's business up in New England.

They figured out the degree part, but left out the business or job on exit thingy.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com on February 7, 2013 at 1:42 PM · Report this
Original Andrew 12
@ 7

You're so right, thank you. A university is not a vocational school and shouldn't be considered one.
Posted by Original Andrew on February 7, 2013 at 1:44 PM · Report this
13
Many of the MOOC courses are fundamental "core" courses, teaching skills rather than outlook and (given the current state of the art) focus mostly on skills the acquisition of which can be easily measured (by multiple choice, etc). What's the harm in automating this process? Plus the global marketplace ensures that the very best and most motivated instructors end up presenting these "routine" classes, maybe better than any given college happens to have on staff. (How many of you have sat through an interminable intermediate class taught by a brilliant but disinterested research-oriented professor? Show of hands?)
I see no problem in using MOOC for these kinds of courses. Until we figure out how to enhance the platform to provide really good one-on-one interaction, I would not move the entire degree program to it.
Posted by bobhy on February 7, 2013 at 1:53 PM · Report this
14
"cheapening a college degree benefits nobody"

Seriously? MOOCs are undermining the quality of a college degree? Have you been on a campus in the last 10 years? Money has been sucked out of the classrooms and poured into administrative overhead while tuition skyrockets. A MOOC is as interactive as a freshman survey course gets at most schools and a heck of a lot cheaper. Bring it on.
Posted by Mr. Bleeto on February 7, 2013 at 2:54 PM · Report this
15
My daughter is currently taking the edX.org CS50 course, which is the same CS50 course (the content is a bit different) that I took nearly 30 years ago. Since it was taught in a huge lecture hall and you really had no direct interaction with the professor, I really don't see much difference between the free Harvard-professor taught course and the very expensive in-person Harvard-professor taught course.

Except the online course has lots of cool features (a zillion videos, on-line forums, great access to people that can help, cool tools for checking in your work..etc) that simply didn't exist when I took it.

Is it possibly easier to cheat? Maybe. If you finish the course with the same investment as you'd give an in-person course, will you have learned the same amount? Yes, I think so.
Posted by randoma on February 7, 2013 at 3:30 PM · Report this
16
Do you actually know anything about Coursera? Not only is no credit given for any of the courses offered it is explicitly stated that you are NOT allowed in any, way, shape, or form allowed to say you "took a class" at "such and such university." You are not enrolled at the school, you get no academic recognition whatsoever, and the classes are offered SOLELY to further one's own personal edification - nothing else. I am taking a course on Coursera offered via Wesleyan University. The class involves approximately 3-5 hours of work a week (according to the course description). This is nowhere near the workload of an actual academic course one takes in college. I have two BAs from Syracuse University (graduated with honors 1994) and this Coursera class is VERY BASIC with a broad stroke of the subject covered. There are over 300 people in the class, from all over the world, of all kinds of ages, educational backgrounds, etc.

If you want to start some sort of campaign about the cheapening of higher education, targeting Coursera is not the place to do it. I have numerous friends who are professors at various universities across the country and basically every accredited institution in this country wants in on these types of courses. It's the colleges and universities themselves you should start with - not only are they charging obscene tuition, but they want to embrace this massive open online course culture (and make money off of it).

The punchline? Coursera's course about hosting a successful MOOC class crashed and burned and had to be pulled out of their course offerings. Read about it here:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/…
More...
Posted by xina on February 7, 2013 at 5:59 PM · Report this
17
"The history of higher education over the course of the 20th century was one of dramatic democratization. What used to be an opportunity reserved almost exclusively for the children of the elite was transformed into an American birthright"

Elizabeth Warren would argue that since 1970 or so, college has become the new high school -- ie, if you graduated from high school back in the day you could enter the middle class. That's a joke today, and most people would concede that a bachelors degree is needed. So what took 12 years now takes 16+, and leaves people in debt once they're out. So while I think it's great that more people get to go to college, in many ways we're worse off.

Warren explains it all, starting around the 43 minute mark:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0…
Posted by ScruffyBallardMan on February 7, 2013 at 7:21 PM · Report this
18
Grad student here: almost everyone, profs and TAs et al, hates teaching intro courses. Put that shit online so I can get back to my research.
Posted by wxPDX on February 7, 2013 at 8:42 PM · Report this
Posted by xina on February 8, 2013 at 8:45 AM · Report this

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