Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Online Education, Distinction Without a Degree

By Gideon TeitelPublished January 1, 2017

Online education, whether it is pursued be for a degree, certificate, or leisure has proved to be a dynamic way for people around the world to freely learn. This is why the government should provide economic benefits to Edx to further encourage universities to collaborate and provide MOOCs.
By Gideon Teitel  

Online degrees have many benefits to students; they can take the classes at their convenience and save money. From 2014-2015, 3.9% more people took online courses, yet only 29.1% of academic leaders deem these online degrees to be legitimate. However,  Gautam Kaul, finance professor at the University of Michigan believes that fields that require more technical (math, science, finance) knowledge will make good use of online education because the skills you learn will be more easily verifiable compared to a degree in philosophy. Larry Bouthillier, a computer science professor in Harvard's extension school, recognizes the importance of peer-to-peer collaboration and socializing on college campuses. He argues that this collaboration can be replicated online to a certain extent.

Perhaps the most novel and prestigious of online degrees belongs to Minerva Schools, which was founded in 2014 and sports an acceptance rate of under 2% out of 16,000 applicants. The school's philosophy is to develop a greater understanding through active participation in seminar type classes of 18 students maximum. Students actually get to know their professors. No student can hide in the "back row" because the teacher can cold call anyone by pressing their image on the screen. Traditional universities promote rote memorization as hundreds of students packed into a single class passively listen to lectures. Minerva encourages its students to think critically about the material and not just regurgitate what the professor says. Its students travel to 7 countries over their four years, obtaining a richer cultural experience than traditional campus dwellers.

Starting in 2012, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)  have reached 10s of millions of people. Coursera and edX are two of the most notable options for online classes. They offer all of their courses free of charge, which are taught by professors at the top universities. They also offer certificates for a relatively cheap fee, which can be used for employment. A number of their courses have also been approved for college credit, which shows that these two MOOCs are designed to be complimentary and supplementary to the college experience and not substitute for it. What is most impressive is that these MOOCs have partnered with hundreds of universities and have taught students all around the globe.

The economist argues that it is acceptable for students to take a piecemeal approach to MOOCs and only learn a part of the course because they are learning out of pure intellectual curiosity. MOOCs deliver an unprecedented level of educational exposure to students around the world, regardless of income level. The economist believes MOOCs will pressure traditional universities to lower their costs and improve their content to remain competitive.

Many experts are wary of the social harms of online education in that foregoing face to face interaction can foster feelings of loneliness and inauthenticity. A dimension of the education is certainly lost given that there is no real group work or team bonding. There is also less accountability because peer and instructor feedback is given in an non-personal way. Online education inevitably leads to more time in front of the computer, which can cause eye strain.

However, these harms are outweighed by the breadth of knowledge that the non-profit edX brings to people around the world. EdX should be subsidized and marketed by the government because learning should be ubiquitous. Efforts should also be made to make the courses in Chinese as it could be seen as a sign of good will. Peking and Tsinghua University could follow by offering MOOCs in English. A more educated populace in China is also more likely to become a democracy that is generally more aligned with the U.S.