Sunday, May 20, 2012

Online Classes Invite Students to Join the Ivy League, Kind Of



5.9.12 | Earlier this month, education bigwigs Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology entered what New York Times Reporter Tamar Lewin referred to as an “academic Battle of the Titans,” after announcing their newest partnership, edX, which allows people all over the world to take free online courses offered by both universities.


Although these classes are not the equivalent to receiving credit toward a degree at either institution, they would afford those who may not have access to Harvard or MIT the opportunity to experience the delights of listening to some of the sharpest minds on the topics of our day.

[snip]


Million-Dollar Question: What’s the Value?

[snip]. But what, exactly, is the value of taking online classes – for free – that do not result in a college credit? This is an open question, and it was the topic of conversation in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” last week.

Four educators and one student weighed in, covering many angles. Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, argues that while “competition is wonderful,” two obstacles limit the potential success of these ventures.

[snip]

“First, students and employers want ‘diplomas’ (skill certification), which random certificates for individual courses probably will not meet. Second, for large numbers, college is as much a socialization and networking as an intellectual exercise, and such accoutrements of college life as booze and sex are hard to provide online,” writes Vedder.

I suspect he wrote the last with a bit of snark. Still, Vedder argues, these new opportunities have great promise to lower the cost of higher education by sidestepping the “three greatest enemies” to achieving this objective: the federal government and its often dysfunctional student aid programs, accreditation agencies with their entrance barriers, and the faculty of traditional colleges. He also suggests that alternative higher education institutions will give students more options, and that’s always a good thing.

[snip]

Indeed, some version of that bundling might already be happening at Peer-to-Peer University.

Jeremy Gleick, a sophomore in bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, praised the rigor of his UCLA online courses and the interaction between students and teaching assistants. But he doubts the same could be achieved in courses opened to tens of thousands.

[snip]

We’re almost there—but as Christine recently wrote in “Jamming the System,” a look at standardized testing, the problems with robot graders are not limited to the grading itself.

Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin College, counters that while “the next phase in the evolution of online higher education has begun,” this new platform should not be viewed as a replacement for on-campus interaction between students and faculty. Instead, it should be viewed as an additional tool for enhancing these interactions. [snip].


“A Moral Obligation”

Some additional points raised by other debaters include the role of lab work in higher education, which would be lost in completing a college degree online (they overlook, however, some innovative digital labs and video game experiences that can mimic lab work—more of which will be available in coming years), and the potential to encourage online interaction between different groups of students who may not talk to each other in the classroom.

[snip].

Kathy Enger, director of the Northern Lights Library Network, takes a different approach. Recalling the student diversity she encountered when she first began teaching at an online university, Enger writes that it “contributed to the vitality of learning and was an unexpected component of the virtual experience.”

[snip]

Despite the kinks these new partnerships contain, nearly all agreed that they represent an important step in education reform.

[snip]

Moving Beyond Replicating the Classroom

[snip]

On many levels, though, the debate is predictable and, well, unimaginative. Far too often, the people debating this issue are not imagining a truly fundamental shift that can occur when online collaboration around a topic takes off. [snip].

Also, too many are stuck in the mode of replication. [snip]. It’s not about replicating what happens in a classroom. The online opportunities are about reimaging how learning can happen.

[snip]

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