Online education: proceed with cautionNext month, former President of Yale University Richard Levin will become the chief executive officer of Coursera, an online platform through which millions of people around the world can enroll in massive online open courses. Levin is no stranger to online education. He served as an adviser to Coursera and spearheaded Yale’s online experimentation through Open Yale. This career move is consistent with his previous involvements. And, yet, as a former leader of one of the nation’s most highly regarded universities, Levin’s move could be seen as a legitimization of online learning models. Is such a legitimization acceptable or desirable?
Over seven million people have enrolled in Coursera’s online courses since the company’s founding two years ago, suggesting that the online education movement has gained rapid momentum. Many universities, including Duke, have experimented with iterations of the MOOC model. But these initiatives have been polarizing. Last year, faculty rejected Duke’s contract with online course provider 2U, and, yet, many at Duke continue to celebrate professor Mohamed Noor’s “flipped classroom.”
While proponents of online platforms applaud the increased accessibility of knowledge to a global audience, skeptics decry the gradual replacement of the brick-and-mortar classroom experience. As a result, this debate often devolves into a discourse of fear—fear of being left out of a rapidly emerging education marketplace or fear of losing the “university experience.” Both sides raise justifiable concerns. But the questions Duke needs to be asking about the future of online education should not be motivated by fear. Rather, Duke should be asking itself what model of education—whether brick-and-mortar, online or likely some hybrid fusion of both—fosters the highest quality of knowledge.
As an institution devoted to fostering knowledge, Duke has a responsibility to temper its growing enthusiasm for technologically-mediated learning until it is better equipped to answer this critical question. Current models of online education must remain supplementary to traditional teaching models. Although this does not necessarily preclude the possibility that online courses might offer an adequate substitute for classroom education in the future, online education, in its current form, is simply too young to successfully replace the classroom model.
It is not hard to envision a future in which technology is integrated into the modern liberal arts institution. In an age of increasingly innovative technological change, Duke should integrate technology to the extent that it produces higher quality students and bodies of knowledge. It is important, however, to balance the wave of online education with the understanding that some modes of learning can only happen through direct human interaction. Some communities of scholarship are best built in shared physical space, and the development of true rigorous critical thinking requires a more interactive and dialectic process than most online courses currently allow for. So long as technology falls short of in-person learning, online experimentation should remain supplementary to the classroom experience.
The future of online education remains uncertain. Of course, this uncertainty should not cause us to write off classroom innovations altogether. Instead, we should weigh a desire to pursue online education platforms against the reality that such technology cannot, in its current form, replace the value of human interaction.