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Viewpoint: Coursera is no classroom


Published November 12, 2012

The University has nothing to fear. As long as it exists, students will come. And by come, I mean flock here by the thousands. What prompts me to say this is not the threat of rising tuition prices (even though that’s true as well), but rather the expansion of online education. The University has openly embraced Coursera, an online educational medium that allows anyone to take classes from prestigious universities such as Stanford University, Princeton University, Brown University and 31 other institutions, including the University of Michigan. According to Coursera’s mission statement, it wants to “empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

So with all the hubbub surrounding online education, specifically Coursera, I decided to give it a try.

Since Oct. 22, I’ve been enrolled in “Principles of Obesity Economics,” a class taught by Prof. Kevin Frick from Johns Hopkins University. While at first I only took the class because it was four weeks long, I’ve actually enjoyed the topic, as it tries to answer the question of why the United States suffers from an obesity problem using an economic perspective. Every lecture has taught me something that I didn’t previously know, which is really all I could have expected.

Admittedly, I’m not as engaged in the class as most of the other students, and for good reason. I’m in college and many of them aren’t. I barely spend any time watching the posted lectures and doing the quizzes, but it looks like I’m going to get the 70 percent grade necessary to complete the class. And there lies the problem with Coursera and the online education experience as a whole; it lacks the demand for the critical thinking that I crave.

There’s no way online education can fully replace the traditional classroom setting. While my instructor has set up a discussion forum where students can converse and talk about the subject, it certainly doesn’t compare to the passionate debates that go on in my English 125 class at the University. The neatly produced PowerPoint presentations my instructor posts aren’t nearly as intriguing as Prof. Brian Coppola in organic chemistry.

There’s no doubt in my mind that online education serves a purpose by giving more people an opportunity to learn, and I think any chance to improve your intelligence should never be wasted. But I want to make the point that there’s something to be said for the human element, especially in an academic setting. I’m not denouncing the value of an online education, but I’m skeptical of the idea that an individual who earned a bachelor’s degree online could compete with someone who did the same on a physical campus.

I have no regrets over my Coursera experience. It has been fascinating to learn information in a different way. But it has made me rethink the purpose of an education. Is it ultimately for monetary gains? Or is it to help improve society? I’ve concluded that it really doesn’t matter. Because no matter which choice you pick, relying on online education as a complete education could be providing false hope that we’ve actually learned something.

President Barack Obama has emphasized the importance of an education in his first term and it certainly will be a focus of his second term. But like anything, it must be done responsibly. I recognize that I’m potentially biased because of how privileged I am to attend this university. But I’m convinced that if we want to become smarter as nation, we need to find ways to get people into the classroom and off the couch.

Derek Wolfe is an LSA freshman.