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Tobias '12: The university-college in the Internet age


A potential employer scans two resumes lying on his desk. On one side is a recent Brown grad who has taken 32 courses in a variety of areas. On the other side is someone who took the same courses online. In his cover letter, the online student claims full proficiency in all courses listed and practically dares an interviewer to question him. Upon being interviewed, the online student proves his acumen, leaving the potential employer impressed.

The scenario envisaged above is fictional but not that far-fetched. Several universities already upload lectures, assignments and tests and provide them free over the Internet. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, provides thousands of courses online that cover a broad range of topics.

The benefits of so much free access to higher learning are obvious. The belief that a better educated citizenry is more productive and makes smarter decisions is what motivates governments to spend immensely on higher education.

At a liberal arts college like Brown, it is hard to deny ease of access to education. The freedom to explore and shop courses that cover topics that are not within our concentrations is a key facet of the New Curriculum.

However, with so many free courses now available online, one wonders exactly how educational they actually are. At a brick and mortar institution, professors provide vital feedback, and peers offer new perspectives and intellectual challenges. And the university setting allows undergraduates to gain invaluable research involvement. Surely these experiences add real value to the college experience that cannot be gained from online coursework alone.

However, recent developments suggest that the distinction may be lost on some, including Brown administrators. A four-part series in The Herald last semester ("Guided by Green, Brown tests uncharted waters," Dec. 2) described how the University has put aside its emphasis on undergraduate education to instead seek increased revenues. Among the new schemes to bring in the big bucks is a plan to offer online masters' programs.

This move to grant degrees for coursework completed entirely, or almost entirely, online completely devalues Brown's brand and suggests that online coursework can substitute for the experience of learning from a real teacher in a university setting among peers. If Brown is known as a school that offers online degrees, then the line between a degree earned online and a degree earned from sitting in class is fuzzy at best.

During the break, many websites went dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress and the fight by multinational media corporations to garner revenue from their intellectual property.

Brown and other institutions of higher learning should watch this fight closely. They should realize that once they put content online, even if they initially charge, it will inevitably be disseminated for free. If Disney cannot get websites to take down their movies, then what hope does Brown have of regulating the distribution of their courses?

As Brown struggles to assert itself in the globalized world of the 21st century, eschewing online degree programs and online access to course content will make Brown stand out as one of the last bastions against the digitization of learning. At some level, the world must remain cognizant of a truth we at Brown all know — that actively attending college is an experience that cannot be replicated over a computer.

While I agree that greater access to education should be lauded, online courses fail to provide the comprehensive interactions that are an essential part of learning. Furthermore, Brown developed under the vision of a "university-college" where the undergraduate experience is valued above all else. Online courses and degrees have the potential to jeopardize Brown's uniqueness and debase the Brown degree.

When our hypothetical employer interviews our two candidates, the Brown grad should be able to talk about forging faculty relationships, learning in an active research environment and being among peers who challenged their intellect. No amount of online coursework can compete with that.



Ethan Tobias '12 cannot stand staring at a computer screen all day. He can be reached at


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