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College goes online, but what do we lose?

August 10, 2010

[Bill] Gates thinks the idea of young adults having to go to universities in order to get an education is going to go away relatively soon. Well, provided they’re self-motivated learners.

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. “It will be better than any single university,” he continued.

He believes that no matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.

He made sure to say that educational institutions are still vital for children, K-12. He spoke glowingly about charter schools, where kids can spend up to 80% of their time deeply engaged with learning.

But college needs to be less “place-based,” according to Gates.

I love the idea that college-level education could be accessible to anyone who can get online, regardless of location, social status, or money. (This obviously still excludes the majority of the world’s population though, since most people cannot easily get online or understand lectures that are likely to be in English.)

The idea that university learning as replaceable by online videos and readings troubles me though, because the most important parts of my education were not lectures, but seminars. The lectures prepared us for those seminars, sure. Professors’ presentations gave us the framework that we used to organize our ideas and make sense of our experiences.

But the classes that had a lasting impact on my world view, career, and relationships were the ones where we sat in circles, challenging each other to think in new ways. We could engage the lectures more comprehensively this way too – asking our professors back about points we did not understand or pushing back against ideas we did not share. From there, I had great relationships with my professors, who helped guide my intellectual development and research in ways that I never expected. How different my life would be if professors had not seen my interest in threads of classroom conversation and pointed me towards participatory action research methodology, feminist liberation theologies, the works of bell hooks, an internship in DC, a Fulbright application…

The lectures are important, of course. And making those available to everyone is surely a good thing. It’s what we do with those lectures – the papers we write, the discussions we have, the questions we ask – that make the lectures valuable though. For me, those were the substance of college. If college is less “place-based,” that’s fine with me, as long as we find a way to make sure it’s still people-based too.

Then again, this might just be for humanities education. Would it be different for science or math students? Feel free to chime in, all you pre-med folks…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 1:41 am

    Agree, reducing learning to online textbooks seems divorced from sharing reality of humanity. Thanks for post.

  2. August 10, 2010 1:53 am

    Hi I enjoyed your post. I also thought similar things when I read the speech by Bill Gates.

    When I need guidance or feedback, I’d rather ask it in person to my professor or my colleagues than through online means. It’s much faster and has less chance for ambiguity/miscommunication. Technology has come a long way in connecting us (Facebook, Skype, forums, etc), but it won’t replace the value in human-to-human contact anytime soon.

    That’s my opinion…and I’m an educational software programmer!

  3. August 10, 2010 6:14 am

    Thanks to both of you for commenting!

    I’d always rather stop by office hours than send an email for a question about class content. I was actually thinking about taking some classes online from here to prepare me for an MPH, but decided that if I couldn’t talk with my professors, I probably would not learn as much nor do as well. It’s cool that it’s an option though – for some people, maybe a bio class online would be exactly what they need.

  4. August 10, 2010 1:32 pm

    If it’s like a lecture where you’re just sitting there taking notes, perhaps online video streaming is enough. There are already schools doing this, like UC Berkeley:

    You can start/stop the video anytime in the comfort of your own home, so you can go at your own pace.

    Also, when you use a forum to post questions about a topic, and your TA or professor replies to your question, your classmates might also benefit from it and spare your TA from answering the same question over and over.

    • August 10, 2010 11:11 pm

      That kind of class seems perfectly suited for online learning. And definitely easier on TAs and professors!

  5. August 10, 2010 8:07 pm

    I am a self-motivated learner and took several online courses in high school, but I’m glad I’m not doing college that way. The interaction, whether with my professors or my peers, makes the experience. (Though, I could stand a little less interaction with drunken frat boys.)

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