What’s happening to college education?

May 7, 2013

There’s a new craze in education, and that’s the love being heaped on MOOCs–massively open online courses. Those are online courses meant for massive numbers of students.

In fact, for a while, I couldn’t get through the New York Times without seeing yet another excited column from a famous opinion writer whose first name starts with a T and last name with an F. Oh, ok. It’s Tom Friedman and he is positively giddy about online learning and its potential to democratize education.

But, here’s a question he hasn’t addressed:  should university education be democratized? And another: what is the quality of education without instructor-student and student-student interaction?

Are classrooms like this becoming a thing of the past?

Back in the day, a university education was meant to teach students to think. To expose them to new ideas. Minds were challenged by the Socratic method, a method that could elicit excitement and energy when young people made a new (to them) discovery.

I’ve seen the way many schools implement online learning and–for all Friedman’s breathless excitement— it’s flat.  Students go online to view static Power Point presentations and get assignments. They consume lectures by reading the Power Points. Sometimes the professor reads the presentation verbatim in an audio or video file, which is excruciatingly boring. Other times professors simply make a dry lecture even drier by delivering it via video.  Once in a while, an instructor uses the online medium to its fullest, with captivating lectures and lots of online chat, but that’s rare.

Assignments are  turned in online for instructor feedback, also given in written form and delivered to the student online. There might be a forum for posting questions. Occasionally, not that often, a live chat room.  Little to no personal interaction of any kind with the instructor or other students. Nothing real time.

Does that sound appealing?

Is this being replaced by…



College education is becoming a commodity that’s hugely profitable for colleges but, in my opinion, online education doesn’t do much for actual learning.

I teach in a traditional classroom environment. We’re lucky enough to have small classes, so I get to know students better than I did when I taught 300-person mass enrollment courses at gigantic university. My students’ projects and interests can easily be integrated into the learning environment, making lessons more interesting to them, more lively–and relevant.

There’s room for variation, too. Yes, we have a syllabus, but we also have the freedom to riff and go off on an exciting new path.  The other day, my teamwork and collaboration class was doing an exercise in which teams set up a leadership structure for a post-apocalyptic world. There were many leadership considerations.

In our post-exercise discussion, one student commented that the leadership structures seemed all very “American,” modeled after what we knew.  Another student asked, “I wonder how other cultures would do it?”  I suggested that we find a way to look at that and promised to get back to them next class.

After doing some online research of my own to check the feasibility of my idea, I assigned the class to research and report back on the way other cultures dealt with leadership and group challenges. They could do the project as an individual or in small teams: their choice. One group of three chose to work together. The rest chose to do the project individually.  They had a week to research a tribe or different culture.

This was the best of circumstances: a student-driven learning experience.

Students presented their findings over two classes.  They chose various tribes: South American. Native American. Issues including encroaching civilization. Appropriation of land. Language barriers. Missionaries.   Discussion in class about leadership styles and methods was robust. Our email boxes filled up as students passed around book titles and movies that related to their topic. Students were engaged and so was I.

It was…exciting!

So here’s my point–MOOC systems are not set up for that kind of variation in subject delivery. The kind of vibrant classroom discussion we had that day would be impossible online, even on a Skype line.

It would be impossible to know students as well as I know mine. To have the kind of student-to student and student-teacher interaction that is only possible face-to -face. To tailor a lecture to a discussion.

It would be impossible to experience the kind of excitement I saw in my class the other day.

For all the crazy giddiness of Friedman or others, those of us who really love working with young minds know that MOOC and online learning provide an inferior education. Parents, beware!

I could talk for hours about whether or not college should be democratized. Back in the day, college wasn’t for everyone at first; it was limited to the elite who could afford it. I won’t go that far. But I do think that college should not be the trade school that it’s becoming.

For me, a good college education broadens young minds and teaches them critical thinking skills. It doesn’t just deliver information.

I am not a fan of online education and I can’t see that I’ll ever become one.

Last year, I taught in a classroom that had this on the wall:

 It was a daily reminder of the roots of education. That we cranked the cylinder ourselves. That it wasn’t automated.

My current classroom is much more modern. It has a gigantic video screen, orange desks that roll and internet access. There’s no pencil sharpener on the wall. In fact, I’m probably the only one who even brings a pencil to class.

I hope I don’t  just seem old and stuck in my ways, only interested in the way things were. I don’t think I am.

I think I’m just someone who loves to see a young person’s eyes light up when they’re really into the learning experience.

I like to see it. In person.

7 comments on “What’s happening to college education?
  1. Jerred says:

    Had I read this a few months ago, I would have agreed that online education is sub-par to being in an actual class-room. I have taken online classes provided by local colleges and universities and I do prefer to sit in on an actual classroom.
    That being said, I just finished a MOOC style course on advanced single variable calculus, provided by Corsera.com, presented by the University of Pennsylvania, and taught by Dr. Robert Ghrist. This is one of five accredited courses that you can receive credit for completion at Coursera.com (http://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/02/07/online-learning-goes-official-as-five-coursera-courses-get-approved-by-the-american-council-on-education/).

    I’m not being paid by coursera.com or by Penn State. I have to say, the MOOC style calculus course was by far the best math course I’ve ever taken, and one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, period. Dr. Ghrist had 57 video lectures that were in depth, visual, funny, and clear. I could tell he spent an enormous amount of time developing the material and perfecting the lectures–it showed.

    In twelve weeks we covered what amounts to two semesters of calculus in a classroom. Many years ago, I took those two semesters of calculus at a university; however, I can say without a doubt, I learned much more in the twelve week MOOC than the year at a university. In the discussion boards, fellow students and I were asking and answering questions of one another. The Staff (which was composed of all PhD’s in math or related fields) would jump in occasionally, if the question wasn’t answered clearly by another student. There was more discussion and interaction in this class than any other math class I’ve “sat in” on. I would definitely recommend this course to a friend, colleague, or my own child if I had one.

    Yes, I have endured a few other online classes that were a waste of time. But, I’ve also sat in on university classes where professors read from PowerPoint slides in a monotone voice—I’d get a better understanding of reading the book than listening to the professor drone on. I think MOOC style courses have the potential to be a fantastic way to deliver information and foster discussions and interaction amongst students and faculty.

    I hope more MOOC classes become accredited. The cost to receive credit for this calc course was something like $70. For 1 semester at a local university (12+ units) the cost is roughly $3500 just for tuition. As a student, I think MOOC has the potential to be an affordable alternative to universities.

    As someone who would like to teach one day, I would much rather teach in a classroom. But I think that’s just me being selfish, because I think I’d like the face-to-face interaction between the students and me, rather than sitting in front of a computer all day.

    I think this the next step in the evolution of education. I hope it comes sooner rather than later.

    I would recommend that you try auditing the calc course taught by Robert Ghrist, just so you know the potential MOOC has.

    • admin says:

      I don’t think you’re selfish at all–the classroom experience is ore expensive for colleges to offer but give a far richer student experience. I hear what you’re saying and glad you had a good experience in calculus online. You’re right, there are many variables to an online experience. Thanks for taking time to give a different view.

  2. Sigh. We need more teachers like you. What you described as your classroom experience sounds like something I would have thrived under. Instead, we got boring lectures with 500 people in an auditorium, and you got the Denebian Death Glare if you dared ask a question that would keep everyone in their seats for a minute longer.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Gary. I love teaching college students! I really don’t like MOOCs for the most part and it turns out, students don’t do well in them as a whole. It’s a nice profit center for colleges, though. Ah, well.

  3. there is something to be said “don’t forget the gathering together”; eye contact, projections and ” “electricity in the air” . . . those moments are priceless . . . and we embrace change.

    • admin says:

      It’s a fine line, this embracing of change but still wanting to keep the best parts. Priceless moments, you’re right.

  4. Ashley says:

    This is really innovative ways of learning you expressed, thank you for being a great teacher to many of the students. Yeap really i do agree that the online courses really help in teaching massive number of students beyond the boundaries. Thank you for sharing a great blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Follow Carol


Here you’ll find my blog, some of my essays, published writing, and my solo performances. There’s also a link to my Etsy shop for healing and grief tools offered through A Healing Spirit.


I love comments, so if something resonates with you in any way, don’t hesitate to leave a comment on my blog. Thank you for stopping by–oh, and why not subscribe so you don’t miss a single post?


Subscribe to my Blog

Receive notifications of my new blog posts directly to your email.