If you haven’t already seen it, David Brooks published an op-ed about online education in the New York Times yesterday.  In it, he writes about the growing number of major universities — among them Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, Penn State, Harvard, and MIT — now offering a significant number of online courses.  These courses, which generally include video lessons and embedded quizzes, are open to everyone around the world. They bring world-class education to those without access to these universities and allow teachers to reach beyond the classroom (and certainly beyond the usual class capacity — a recent Stanford course on artificial intelligence attracted 160,000 students) to make a major impact with their lessons.  The flip side, however, is a spate of concerns about these classes’ intellectual rigor, the inaccessibility of professors to students, and the implications such a change might have on the academic profession.  (Hint: the job market may just have gotten tougher.) 

We have not talked the issue of online courses much in our class, but it seems to me that it does present strong ties to the more frequently-discussed issues of digitization and the possible ramifications of changing media.  How will online courses affect the way we construct and teach classes, the way that students engage with materials, and the way that we, as teachers, interact with students?  What will it mean for job prospects and teaching opportunities?  Will—in some sort of horrible, THX 1138-like future — the university be streamlined to a small coterie of professors who deliver lectures to students hundreds, even thousands of miles away from the classroom?

This issue came up in a round-about way at the talk Chad Wellmon and Chris Forster gave back in February.  There, the conversation briefly turned to the issue of videotaping lectures, and some of the same questions that I have just raised came up: what will this mean for the profession?  Will we even need professors anymore?  Will students need to come to class if they can just watch the lecture in their bedrooms? 

The answer that Wellmon, Forster, and their audience quickly came to was no.  Lectures — good lectures — will not hold up indefinitely on videotape.  Professors change them over time, adding in new research or thought (and, in the best cases, taking out outdated jokes).  When delivered in person, lectures can also engage an audience in a way that a recording, however well done, generally cannot. 

I tend to agree with this assessment.  Neither videotaping classes nor a larger program of online courses seems to me to be a major threat to the traditional classroom.  As Brooks himself points out, there is no substitute for human interaction.  Students who can engage in-person with a professor and with a room full of dynamic classmates must be more involved than those at a remove from the classroom energy.  The more advanced parts of learning, what Brooks calls “reflecting” and “synthesis,” are also better suited to in-person education.  What’s more — although Brooks neglects to point it out — basic elitism will probably prevent online education from taking over entirely.  Classes accessible to anyone cannot be exclusive and, thus far at least, one cannot get a degree from Harvard simply by taking a free online course. 

Elements of this discussion also seem to me to hark back to our earlier conversations (in class and on this blog) about the digitization of books.  Some of the same features, after all, apply to both subjects: digital books, like online courses, are generally more readily-available and easily-accessible than printed books or in-person classes.  Many people, too, would argue that they offer just as good a product as the “real thing.”  In reading a digital text or taking an online class, however, one loses something experiential — gone is the romance of the medium and a sense of the context in which this book (or class) fits into a larger history.  Gone, too, is a sense of connection: in reading, a tactile one with the book’s pages; in online coursework, with the professor, the class, and the larger university community. 

If we accept this parallel, then Brooks’ vision of a “blended” classroom — one that employs both online and face-to-face educational methods — suggests that printed and digital books, too, will be able to find a happy harmony.  After all, as we have said all semester, the two are not mutually exclusive.  The trick to will be to “blend” properly and to make sure that we preserve the best features of each medium.

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