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August 28, 2014

Will online courses replace classrooms?

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When MIT professor Anant Agarwal decided to offer his circuits and electronics course online for free, over 150,000 students signed up in 162 countries.  Only 5 percent completed the course, but the experience sparked an idea and a new business.

He founded edX, an online platform that he says will help teachers reach even more students. Now 2.5 million students use the platform to learn from prestigious institutions.

But many professors are skeptical that online courses can replace on-campus education. Students need to spend time with professors to engage in intellectual discussions and develop critical thinking skills, Shyam Sharma, assistant professor at Stony Brook University, said.

Agarwal argues that online courses can offer students the chance to engage with the material. “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,” Agarwal said.

Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, believes that many people designing online courses focus on how cheap and easy they are without addressing the quality of the education they provide, and that colleges will use them to cut costs and spend less money on professors.  “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,” she said.

But online courses do not need to replace in-person learning, Agarwal said. “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,” he added.

Online lectures made it easy for students to learn at their own pace, according to Brian White, a professor at the University of Massachusetts. After students learn the material online, he can meet with them to address any additional questions, he said.


Warm up questions
  1. Have you ever learned anything from a YouTube video?  Explain.
  2. Have you or anyone you know ever taken an online course?
  3. How do teachers help you learn?
Critical thinking questions
  1. How do online courses provide education in a way that might not be possible with in-person education? And vice versa, what does in-person learning provide that online courses cannot?
  2. If you were a teacher, how would you feel about MOOCs? Would you want students to take them? Why or why not?
  3. Why  are some academic subjects taught more easily online than others?
  4. How might MOOCs affect life in rural parts of the world where there might be one school and no colleges?
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