2013-02-18 08:05:00

Online Learning Democratizes Higher Ed, But Can It Get You a Job?

As a recent high school graduate, I have a lot of options when it comes to higher education.

There are big colleges and little colleges, urban campuses and rural campuses, liberal arts colleges, trade schools, community colleges, research universities, and non-research universities. Now there’s the new trend in higher education, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which proponents say have the potential to revolutionize the college experience.

For me, the more pertinent question is: Can they replace it?

MOOCs are online college courses that ultimately aim to make elite education available to all. Unlike most online colleges, they generally do not give credit or confer diplomas, but make up for it with courses of quality and prestige not found in any other form of distance education.

Coursera, perhaps the most prominent company offering online courses, was founded in 2012 by two computer science professors from Stanford. It offers courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, the University of California system, and many other top-tier universities. Edx, another Palo Alto-based company, founded in 2011, offers courses from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Georgetown, among others. You can study hundreds of different subjects; most deal with technology, science, or math, but you can also take courses in philosophy, ancient Greek history, and a multitude of other humanities subjects.

Statistics show that some 60 percent of Americans aged 25 to 34 years old do not have a college degree; many are hindered by the cost. Online courses could offer hope to millions of people who cannot attend traditional colleges.

The lofty objectives and practical benefits have a clear draw. Coursera attracts 70,000 new users a week and reached its millionth member faster than Facebook. The industry as a whole has attracted tens of millions of dollars of investment capital from universities and private investors. The lack of prerequisites, age cutoffs, or price tag has attracted millions of users who would otherwise not be able to take college courses from top universities.

And the State of California has its own interest in the phenomenon. Both Governor Jerry Brown and state Superintendent Tom Torlakson have supported increased investment in online education and implementation across California’s university system. As part of this push, Silicon Valley-based Udacity is partnering with San Jose State University (SJSU) and local community colleges to develop a mix of in-house and online courses that – for the first time ever – will offer credit.

But what about me? I ask myself whether I am willing to replace a traditional college with a MOOC. And the answer is, not yet.

First of all, if higher education's overarching objective is to mold a teenager into an adult, the peripheral aspects of the college experience -- living away from home, forming new communities, and taking part in the traditions of a unifying experience -- are just as important as advanced instruction in a particular field.

Even if MOOCs perfectly replicate classes, they can’t replace the growth that comes with independence and the challenge of gaining new experience.

Second, in strictly economic terms, it comes down to prestige. The difference when it comes to quality of instruction between top and middle-tier universities may be small, but the prestige of a Harvard diploma can make all the difference when it comes to job offers and salaries.

And that is precisely the problem with MOOCs. Even if an MIT student takes exactly the same course as an independent MOOC learner, employers will ultimately see that one student worked hard enough to gain entry to one of the most prestigious institutions in the world and the other simply logged onto the course from his computer. It would take a radical shift in how society views college to make a MOOC certificate of completion as impressive as a college degree.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think the benefits of a degree from a relatively less prestigious institution would serve me better in the job market than one from an online course.

So while I will continue to root for the success of this great experiment, which seeks to make premier higher education available to everyone, for now I remain unconvinced. College is more than classes. For the tens of millions of full- or part-time college students across this country, it serves as a place and a time to build new social networks, to foster intellectual risk taking and greater independence, things MOOCs cannot provide.

Jonah Harris is a recent high school graduate from San Francisco.

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