The Trouble With a Singular Solution

Whereas Clay Shirky spoke to the benefits of online education, Mark Edmundson is a bit more skeptical in his 2012 (yet still just as relevant)1 article for The New York Times, The Trouble With Online Education. I agree with most of the criticisms Clay made in his two articles I linked to yesterday, particularly with regards to the unsustainability of the current model upon which higher education runs. However, having spent three of my high school years taking online courses from various remote schools, and now that — for the first time in my life — I actually go to a classroom on a regular basis, I feel confident in saying that there exists no absolute solution to this problem.

It’s no secret that tuition continues to rise, students find it increasingly difficult to afford four years or more in college, and the degree received upon graduation continues to lose its value in the workplace. Clay’s proposed solution, the widespread adoption of massive open online course or some improved upon derivative, would take a much-needed step in the right direction by mitigating the first and second challenges traditionally faced by higher education institutions. Further, by decreasing the cost of getting a degree, a decline in value of that sheet of paper would become less of a problem. The key word there, though, is “mitigate": his approach — for I cannot, in good conscience, erroneously characterize it as a solution — really ought not be heralded as a the answer at all, but simply a temporary stopgap to the larger problem at hand.

Setting the practicality of Clay’s proposal aside and placing value upon it solely in accordance with his faith in it though, it would be foolish to discount the benefits of a brick and mortar school where students foster lifelong relationships, and encourage each other — rarely consciously, although often subconsciously — to excel. Although other benefits to this approach exist, as well as numerous disadvantages, these two stand out as the most advantageous. After spending the past three years learning online, I can tell you with certainty that remote institutions offer neither of those boons, and in fact, based on my experience, are more likely to be a net loss than anything else: a bare minimum of interaction between students and faculty encourages the completion of the minimum amount of work for the best possible grade. While I have enough friends in America’s public schools to know that this is by no means unique to remote classes, and know enough kids who loved their online classes to realize that I do not typify the norm there either, the point stands: education does not generalize. The question we ought to be asking, then, is not whether web-based education is the future by which all colleges will advance and become profitable institutions, or whether the current system is merely the last vestige of a bygone era, but rather how we can improve both to promote the best learning experience for the next generation.

I could, and perhaps will, devote an entire article to the fact that after two years, his thoughts on this form of education remain relevant. Especially in this industry where fortunes are made seemingly overnight, it stands to reason that we would have seen more progress than this by now. The fact that we have not would make for an interesting point of discussion indeed.