Feldman ’15: Online courses are off target

Opinions Columnist

Education is a gift and a blessing regardless of the medium through which it is received. Some people benefit from college educations, while others do better with education in technical institutions or outside the realm of universities, in particular through careers or professions. But the common trait among all these forms of education is that they are experiential and involve first-person communication. A relatively recent development in college courses, offering courses online, takes away many of the benefits of learning and is detrimental to students’ education.

Taking online courses is an entirely different way to earn a college degree. Using these courses to obtain an online degree can be very useful for nontraditional students. Someone who has a full-time job or provides for a family but needs a college degree wouldn’t be able to attend a four-year university. Online degrees give nontraditional students a more flexible and affordable alternative to obtaining a degree. If online courses are the only option for an individual, then taking those courses is far preferable to taking none at all. But online courses are not nearly as effective for learning, and they should not be offered as part of a full-time student’s semester courseload.

Online courses can save universities money. Not having to provide a facility, transportation and staff members, all while being able to offer the course to more students, effectively cuts down on expenditure. In 2008, the University of Florida found that in a survey of 20 online schools, the average full-time online public student cost about $4,300 annually, while the national average cost for traditional public school students in 2006 was about $9,100 annually. However, this mass production comes at the expense of quality. Online resources may be useful for supplementing one’s education, but they are not sufficient to replace actual courses on campuses.

Online courses lose sight of the actual purpose of a college education. Students don’t pay enormous tuition rates so they can attend college, buy a bunch of expensive textbooks and become autodidacts. One of the biggest benefits of a college education is learning how to communicate through courses. Students listen to lectures, watch other students ask questions about the material and potentially ask their own questions. Essentially, attending class requires an individual to engage with a basic premise of society — simple communication skills.

Just as important is the use of those skills in creating meaningful, long-term relationships with other students and professors. Rather than sitting in front of a computer screen and glancing through avatar pictures of virtual classmates, having class with other students allows for a more diverse, well-rounded education. By interacting with people from different backgrounds, students learn to understand different perspectives on issues, which end up either strengthening or changing their prior beliefs. College wouldn’t be such a formative experience if it didn’t involve meeting and interacting with other students.

It’s also important to realize that these relationships don’t suddenly expire upon graduation. They can be maintained for as long as one wants. So when students have multiple classes together in a specific area, they are essentially networking for future careers. Classmates aren’t just meant to stand next to each other at graduation — they enter the workplace together and can help each other find opportunities to succeed. It’s much easier to develop lasting friendships and relationships in person than it is online.

The other essential relationship established through class is between the student and professor. Getting to know a professor is essential for future letters of recommendation. Close relationships can also lead a professor to set students up with a career or a colleague who might be able to employ them instead. These relationships don’t just happen over email, though. They are strengthened by repeated interactions, like at office hours, and are the result of professors putting a face to just a name on the roster.

The professor-student interaction remains an essential component of learning. Regardless of the class size, there are opportunities to get to know an expert in the field, giving students the ability to glean greater value from what they are learning. The professor can also alter lesson plans to accommodate the level of students’ understanding and spend more time teaching in areas that students might find confusing.

Without a professor’s presence, regardless of a university’s academic code, some form of cheating will always occur. While cheating will inevitably happen through any medium, online courses are practically designed to give students an opportunity to test the boundaries of cheating. These courses lack any semblance of oversight and allow students to work together on exams and assignments. For nontraditional students, some of this problem is alleviated because their peers may not be in the same online course. But taking an online course at a university gives students access to the rest of the class to work on assignments together. What kind of learning can a course that allows students access to each other, their notes and the endless resources on the Internet really test?

Brown currently provides a form of online education with its three Massive Open Online Courses, which are free and accessible to anyone. These courses do not count for course credit but serve as a way to enrich education, offering classes in such areas as archaeology and engineering. MOOCs exemplify both the benefits and the disadvantages of online courses. While these courses offer unlimited enrollment, some Brown students feel they lack individual attention because the professors distribute their energy over such a large number of students, as The Herald reported last month. Offering MOOCs is useful because they are only meant to supplement one’s education, not replace traditional coursework. College education should be based on courses offered at an actual university whenever possible, rather than being diluted through an online medium.



Andrew Feldman’s ’15 opinion on this topic has largely been shaped by his lack of success at learning from “How To” videos online. He can be reached at with suggestions on how to better learn from these films.

  • johnlonergan

    Andrew, thanks for expressing your viewpoint on online courses. I understand your concern about reducing the impact of 1-on-1 work with professors, and agree with your desire to maintain that.

    Brown offers an undergraduate education to an elite 1600 per year who are selected from among the best students in the United States (only 13% of applications are abroad). I don’t question either Brown students’ abilities or Brown professors’ wish to teach well.

    The question of “online” vs. “not online” is a false choice. The question is, as you put it, reinforcing the contact between you and the professor in a way that promotes interchange and learning (for both the profs and the students).

    You and I are both fortunate in that we benefit/benefitted from an on-campus Brown education. We have both the intelligence and resources (aided to some degree by scholarships) to be part of the “elite” 1600 per year.

    There are two places where online courses can help Brown: one benefits you directly, and the other benefits all of us–students, alums, high school students and the broad world of people who may not have the time or resources to fly to Providence and study for four years or more.

    The first, which benefits you directly, is the Khan Academy’s “flipped classroom.” This system takes the lectures–many of which profs have given year after year–and puts them online, along with exercises and other enriched media. The benefit for you is that you can watch the lecture in your dorm room or wherever there is Internet access. If there is a point that needs clarification, you can repeat sections of the lecture, or refer to past lectures to clarify things. By doing the exercises, writing the answers and performing other work, the prof can tell where you are excelling, and where you may need more one-on-one help, or where he/she can improve the lecture. Classroom time is therefore not devoted to the lecture–it’s devoted to discussion, exercises and the prof working with individuals or small groups on topics of interest. This “flipped classroom” technique is already working with more than 10 million students from first grade through university studies. It would enrich the Brown experience and encourage prof-student interaction, a goal we all support.

    The second benefits Brown more broadly. Online courses range from freemium models to post-graduate, degreed models which can charge $60K per year or more. These benefit Brown by helping it move away from sky-high tuition and begging alums for money to a more sustainable model in which revenue is spread across millions, not just the “lucky 1600” physically on the Brown campus.

    This second model involves a panoply of student-prof-Brown student interactions, from online lectures for free to supported studies to degreed studies to post-graduate work. In addition to securing Brown’s financial future, they also offer benefits to several groups of stakeholders:

    High school AP students in rich and poor districts: high school students wishing to take AP courses can take Brown-sponsored courses online. Brown profs support the teachers and Brown post-grads support students. Brown can charge rich districts, and support poor district teachers and students where needed. A corollary to this is that Brown Admissions will be able to build a multi-year relationship with potential applicants, rather than making “thumbs-up or -down” decisions based on information at a point in time.

    Alums: Most of us alums are happy to give Brown a lot of money for continuing education, degreed or not. After graduation, we find that we’re dropped from most Brown-related activities, and hit up for money all the time. We’d really like to continue an interaction with the profs and the subjects they teach–and will pay for online access and support.

    Global students from 8 to 80. Brown’s reputation for high-quality teaching can only be enhanced by spreading the Brown “brand” worldwide. The range of online courses can extend from freemium to degreed models, with several steps in between.

    So, rather than view online support as an “either-or” proposition, or a threat to the prof-student interaction we all favor, let’s look at it in a different light. Let’s look at flipping the classroom, improving admissions, and teaching millions (rather than 1600 newbies per year) as goals which we can support through online tools.

  • Alum

    Andrew, online courses can be a much higher fidelity experience than paper books and notes. Your poor experience with “How to” videos online is closer to the current reality of classrooms today in the lecture hall rather than the future of online empowered education. I point to the work of Brett Victor, a former Apple innovator, who shows what bringing education online really means:

  • Alumni

    The educational philosophy underpinning the New Curriculum, the major draw of a Brown education for students all over the world, eschews testing. It has been shown time and time again that many tests poorly reflects one’s mastery of a subject. And the concerns for cheating you point out also apply to the numerous take home tests many professors at Brown regularly give. Why doesn’t it matter? You can write a test that makes it impossible to look up answers and complete in time by testing the manipulation of concepts rather than regurgitation of lecture notes.