If You Read Something Today

Read this: Revolution Hits the Universities

In the Sunday paper, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman tackled the very present topic of online education. He takes an optimistic view of the phenomenon, which I share. Online education means increased access, decreased cost and hopefully, as it grows and develops and betters, increased quality. Friedman offers up a diverse range of examples, both micro/personal and macro/global, of the potential that online education has to change lives. One such example is a 17-year-old boy with autism for whom a classroom is a daunting, insurmountable challenge but a computer, a comfortable and better-suited learning environment.

“’Please tell Coursera and Penn my story,'” the article quotes “Daniel.” “‘I am a 17-year-old boy emerging from autism. I can’t yet sit still in a classroom so [your course] was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard-of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world.’”

Friedman also sees online education as revolutionary for U.S. foreign aid:

“For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.”

Not to mention, online courses might be the University of California systems saving grace in the coming five or ten years. The UC system is arguably the best state education system in the country, but its been in major trouble the last couple of years. If the UC’s begin offering online courses that are high quality and challenging enough, they could absolutely substitute for impacted classes that interrupt and/or extend so many UC students’ academic paths. This could reverse the now-normal trend of fifth year (or more) seniors as well as save a financially-strained system a lot of money.

Anyway, the list of benefits goes on and on. This is not to say there aren’t negative online education stories. I, along with many students, am pretty familiar with the kind of online course that allows you to whiz by to an A with the bare minimum of engagement and commitment. Taking courses online also opens up the possibility for more cheating, a rampant problem in education today. But I think it’s safe to say such issues will be worked out as we go along, and the positives will far outweigh the negatives.

Friedman writes:

“I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. ‘There is a new world unfolding,’ said Reif, ‘and everyone will have to adapt.’”

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