Two sides to the “online course coin”

There is an article in today’s Wall Street Journal titled “Web Courses Woo Professors: Online Firm Opens Way for More Educators to Create Their Own Internet Classes”

I commented about my worries after reading these two paragraphs that I think show both sides of the coin.  First, the good side,

“I think that what we’re looking at here is … something that I consider to…be more challenging and more intellectually stimulating than just delivering the
lecture,” said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

Now, for the other side,

“I’m a tenured professor, but I do have anxiety on some level of being
replaced,” said Maria Gonzalez, an associate professor of English at the
University of Houston

Obviously, there are many issues here, but I weighed in on only the issue of the quality of education.  Here is my comment.

I utilized MIT online material to teach differential equations – a course MIT describes as “fundamental to much of contemporary science and engineering”. I taught this at a top ranked university that recently published that the average MATH SAT of its admitted undergraduates is 763, though I doubt that it is that high for the “enrolled” undergraduates. I think I can use my experience to help delineate the realities of the two sides to this “online course'” coin. (To learn about me, you can visit my blog

The MIT materials, both online and in print, were developed over years and were better than any book I’ve seen. In addition to my lectures, students could access MIT’s lectures. MIT had developed online “mathlets” that I could use effectively to demonstrate concepts. To see how effective the course was, I will give a quote from a student tutor that the Engineering School used as a complaint about the way I taught this course. Note that I said “complaint”. We are now moving away from the good side (students learn fundamental material well) to the bad side, which I will explain after the quote. Here is the quote:
““…I cannot do many of the [MIT homework] problems…on almost every problem set. …and I made an A in Differential Equations and I made an A in the next course…”
My class actually laughed when I read this to them. They were doing these problems regularly.
So, here is the other (bad) side of the coin. It seemed apparent to me that the Engineering School wanted to keep as many students in engineering as they could, even if it meant watering down the course for everyone. (The Chair of the Math Dept told me he didn’t want to lose the course to engineering and that I needed to teach it as a “cookbook” course, as they “always have”. I refused to change it.)
So, here is my worry: when Coursera and other online providers start working with schools and faculty that are more worried about revenues and prestige than education, what is going to happen? I can almost guarantee that the “marketing” department of many schools will start bragging that they, too, have online courses – like they too, teach differential equations.
(To quote Clark Kerr, “This shift from academic merit to student consumerism is one of the two greatest reversals of direction in all the history of American higher education”)

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