TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

Can online courses replace a campus education?

August 27, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that anyone can take from anywhere in the world, are the future of higher education or the vehicle of its demise, depending on your perspective. Hari Sreenivasan talks with the man who first created the MOOC, professors who say they undermine the goals of a college education and others who see a way the college classroom and the new online format can be blended.


GWEN IFILL: Next tonight: another in our series on Rethinking College.

Are the ivory towers of higher education delivering their product, the much sought-after sheepskin, in an old-fashioned and inefficient way? We look at online technologies that could change colleges and universities.

Hari Sreenivasan is back with that.

They’re handwriting on a tablet, so a white board that can handwrite on a tablet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When Anant Agarwal, a professor of computer science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided in 2011 to offer his circuits and electronics course online for free, he was amazed by the response.

ANANT AGARWAL, CEO, edX: I had over 150,000 students taking it from 162 countries.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while the vast majority of students eventually dropped out, the sheer number of students who passed the course was remarkable.

ANANT AGARWAL: Of 155,000 students that took the course, about 5 percent passed the course and earned a certificate. So that was about 7,200. That is a big number. If I were to teach on campus twice a year, both in the spring and fall semesters, I would have to teach for about 40 years before I could teach 7,200 students.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, just three years later, Agarwal’s overall online venture reaches 2.5 million students from every country in the world.

With help from Harvard and MIT, the computer science professor founded edX, a nonprofit learning destination with a staff of more than 100.

ANANT AGARWAL: Learners from all over the world can come in and take these great courses for free. And the courses from the great universities like Berkeley from California, or Harvard and MIT, or Tsinghua from China, or IIT Bombay, the Australian National University.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Massive open online courses, nicknamed MOOCs, initially generated huge expectations. Many hoped they would make higher education more affordable and accessible to students around the globe.

NARRATOR: Imagine taking a class with 100,000 or more students.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the format has met with criticism from some professors, who say computers cannot equal the quality of in-person teaching.

SHYAM SHARMA, Stony Brook University: We want to know what you think.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shyam Sharma is an assistant professor at writing at Stony Brook University in New York.

SHYAM SHARMA: In our discipline, the objective of students learning is not to basically learn the content of the discipline, but instead to use the content as a context to engage in intellectual discussions, to develop their positions, intellectual positions, to debate and argue and develop critical thinking skills. And that oftentimes requires the expertise and guidance and mentoring and close connection, one-on-one support to the students.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the concerns that the existing academia has about quality is, is delivering information equal to educating someone?

ANANT AGARWAL: So educating someone doesn’t mean just consume a set of information.

It’s not about just watching the video and just listening to it. We have interactivity. We have problem sets and exercises that students engage with. They get feedback. And so they get to try things out and experiment with things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier this summer, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a group funded in part by teachers unions, created this video highly critical of MOOCs.

NARRATOR: So far, MOOCs equals failure.

Professor Lillian Taiz is president of the California Faculty Association.

LILLIAN TAIZ, President, California Faculty Association: I think every single faculty member in our system worries all the time that these products come into our system making all kinds of claims, they’re going to be cheaper, they’re going to be quicker, they’re going to move people in and out faster, but nowhere in the conversation is there a discussion about the quality of the education that they are helping us provide for our students.

ANANT AGARWAL: I really believe that we can transform education both in quality and scale and access.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite all his online teaching success, Agarwal agrees with critics who say online courses are no replacement for classroom instruction. He says edX can be an effective supplement.

Agarwal points to universities that use the edX platform on campus, an approach called blended learning.

ANANT AGARWAL: It doesn’t replace the campus. We really believe that, ultimately, the right model for learning is a blended model, where you blend the best of online and the best of in-person.

Students watch the videos and then do a lot of interactive exercises online. And then they work in groups with the professor. And the professors answer questions and help the students and really help them learn the material. And so this is a form of blending, where you are blending the online with the in-person, to very good results.

BRIAN WHITE, University of Massachusetts Boston: There are different interpretations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Professor Brian White agrees. White, who has taught biology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston for 15 years, decided last fall to replace his lectures with edX instruction.

BRIAN WHITE: I didn’t give a single lecture on any of this material. All these sort of lectures that were sacred to me that I set up for all these years were not necessary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Instead, white used edX’s intro to biology class with lectures by MIT Professor Eric Lander, a world-renowned scientist and leader of the Human Genome Project. White says online lectures made it easy for his students to learn the material.

BRIAN WHITE: They really like the ability to stop and rewind and watch at their own pace, to do the equivalent of saying, can you say that again? Can you say that again? Can you say that again? Can you skip over that boring part?

HARI SREENIVASAN: That allowed White to focus his time in class getting students to truly understand the lesson. He added his own materials and spliced edX content to best fit his course.

BRIAN WHITE: I used the MOOCs lectures to show the students what they needed to do to come to class prepared, and then in class, rather than just telling them information, what I was able to do is take them the next step, so show them how to use it, fill in any cracks, deal with students’ individual issues.

To the extent that I can be replaced by a videotape, fine, replace that part of me with a videotape and leave me to do what I do best, which is to work with students.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Unlike White, many faculty are uncomfortable with the idea of handing over lectures to another professor, and see it as a way college administrators could cut costs in the future by reducing the number of professors on campus.

LILLIAN TAIZ: Budget cuts across the country here in California particularly have really created a crisis in public higher education. And it has been tempting on the part of our boards of trustees and our administrators to look around for cheap silver bullets.

And there is the notion that MOOCs and online will provide that cheap silver bullet. But there is no silver bullet for higher education and education in general. You have to invest in it. You have to really understand that it is labor-intensive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Professors, institutions and online course designers all agree that online learning is likely to play an important role in the future of higher education.

GWEN IFILL: We will continue Rethinking College tomorrow, as Hari looks at the reinvention of the City Colleges of Chicago.

And, online, you can read about the Department of Education’s plan rating how effective and affordable the country’s colleges really are. See what that could mean for students and financial aid.