By Kristi Allen, Associate Opinion Editor
If you’re reading this you’re probably invested in this university in some way, whether you work here or pay tuition. You are also probably within arms reach of a device with which you can access any of the information you would learn in a class here. However, we’re all still going to class in brick and mortar buildings and paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education, and this doesn’t look likely to change. An education you can get on a smartphone just isn’t worth the same thing a college experience is worth, but it should be.
First, it’s important to say that online education in its many forms (anything from paid online university classes and MOOCs to University of Reddit and YouTube tutorials) can never fully take the place of a traditional classroom education. Discussion, debate, group work and a interpersonal connection to the professor are all irreplaceable parts of a traditional college education. Online education can’t compete with brick and mortar schools in these categories. This leads to a question University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson posed in the New York Times two years ago: Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?
In short, no.
But any education is better than no education and online education has the potential to come a lot closer to the ideal than people like Edmundson usually give it credit for. YouTube videos and online quizzes might not be “the very best sort of education” to a university professor, but it can be the best thing for people who are unsure about what they want to study, don’t have time to attend school, or simply can’t afford to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt. We have an opportunity to expand educational access like never before with online learning, especially if people see its value and stop treating it like a second-class education.
There’s already so much available online and much of it is open to anyone for free. The best colleges in the country, including most of the Ivy League schools offer massive online open courses where you can learn for leading scholars. Khan Academy offers math and science courses from the very basics to advanced calculus. Academics and experts make one-off videos on their areas of expertise. You can learn how to fix your car, cook a meal and identify a constellation all in the same place- the “course list” is practically infinite.
All of this learning is missing the interaction and feedback present in traditional college settings. That’s a valid criticism of online education, but not one that should discredit it entirely. Teachers and students can’t interact in the same way, but online learning doesn’t have to be a one-way lecture. Face-to-face interaction might not be an option, but there’s plenty of room for (actual, informed, respectful) debate on the Internet of the kind that college classrooms offer.
That missing human element is part of why online education is perceived as less desirable than traditional higher ed. There’s an illegitimacy surrounding online degrees. They’re perceived as something easier than a traditional degree, an option for unmotivated students or recluses and generally an all-around poor substitute for regular classes.
None of that is necessarily true- an online course can be just as difficult as a regular course, often more so because students have to figure things out on their own. They’re a great option for anyone who has to work or has other obligations during the day. Many people simply don’t live close enough to a good school to make commuting possible or affordable in the U.S., let alone the rest of the world. An “education of the very best sort” is one that fits into people’s lives, not necessarily one that comes with the most prestige.
The biggest shortfall with online education is the way it’s perceived by employers. It’s hard to compare a degree from a four-year school with an established reputation to a certificate from the internet, but those two things shouldn’t be compared. If you can’t rely on the sheet of paper, look at the student and their skills. If someone has the ability and motivation to learn on their own, without the heavy handed guidance of a college, that could be worth more to an employer than a prestigious degree. Online learning has the potential to be a major tool for all of us if we can see it for what it is.