Some professors at elite universities are trying to devise a more economical university model, and they are using the Internet to do it.
Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, is an advocate of the online university and has ambitious goals: producing lectures and live, online discussions to thousands of students at a fraction of the cost, rewarding students for honed skills instead of “grades,” and eliminating the inefficiency of large campuses.
Thrun is now offering free, online courses on artificial intelligence to over 100,000 students around the world. These courses teach the same material for which Stanford students pay $50,000 per year. Thrun offers dynamic, live lectures that end in a “Statement of Accomplishment,” but not Stanford credit. However, the opportunity to learn from the man who led the team that built Google’s self-driving car is probably incentive enough to take his course.
The high cost of a college education unfortunately perpetuates immobility between social classes; students from higher socioeconomic classes have almost automatic access, while students from disadvantaged neighborhoods have a much harder time.
Supplementing a student’s education with online classes reduces the amount of money they have to spend. If students attend class only two days a week and have online courses the other three days, they save on gas, food, university fees, and other costs.
However, what Thrun and other advocates of online universities do not consider are the non-academic skills and values that universities instill in students. Taking courses on a computer at home deprives students of a practical, social education that is necessary in most professions and not taught in high school.
How does somebody develop a personal relationship with a professor, or necessary networking skills when he or she is only one in a class of five thousand, and the only method of communication with peers and professors is through online chat or a discussion board? Professionals, especially service providers, need social skills almost as much as they need qualifications.
Another problem with online courses is cheating from lack of supervision. Thrun portrays students with an idealism that is inspirational, but seems to be ignoring reality. Anyone can sit behind a computer screen and take a course, including a friend of a person enrolled in that course. So, how do we know who is sitting behind that screen? Without a professor and teaching assistants, to whom is the student accountable?
Reducing the amount of money spent on a college education and increasing accessibility does not fix the problem of individual drive, appreciating the significance of one’s education, and whether or not students entering these classes can handle the material. Unequal opportunity and training in public schools also makes the “universal accessibility” dream unrealistic. To reap the benefits of these classes, students must have the proper training before they graduate. Otherwise, even a completely free education does no good.
Online courses are a great idea, they are already being used by some degree at most universities, but implementing the online change slowly may make room for constructive criticism and ensure that the system works as well as it could.
Rachel Farhi is a senior political science and English literature double major and may be reached at opinion@thedailycougar. com.