Online courses add quality to education

I can only imagine the look on my face when I stepped into my jam-packed BIOL 1520 lecture class of more than 200 students in the fall semester of my freshman year.

Granted, I had been warned by those older and wiser than me about how big college can be, but the transition from having close to 20 peers in each class in high school to the hundreds in college was, on the first day, a lot to take in.

Imagine, however, the distortions of my face if I had instead walked into a room and seen the backs of 20,000 heads turned to the front. Or 40,000. Do I dare mention 60,000?

These numbers aren’t arbitrarily chosen—rather, they represent actual class sizes for the key to what one administrator at Tech referred to as “the technological [universities] of the 21st century.”

What I’m referring to are massive open online courses (MOOCs), the latest fad to hit universities, where tens of thousands of students gather from around the world to partake in a college-level course taught by what I can only assume to be a very motivated professor. The classes can range from a variety of topics, and resources distributed normally in college are available for all to see, including syllabi, exams and even video lectures.

Undoubtedly, I was skeptical about the value of these MOOCs at first. To me, it just seemed another way for top-tier universities to publicize the caliber of education they offer and make students, faculty and administration at other universities feel a bit more humble about the level and creativity of their own curriculum.

Besides, education isn’t merely a rote memorization and linear application of various facts mentioned in lecture or in books. Rather it is a deeper, more pronounced understanding and exercise of the material at hand through personal interaction with professors and other students, be it in lecture, office hours or study groups. MOOCs, with their online lectures, seemed to resonate very little of my personal definition of education. Sure, an online forum could (and has been in some, if not all, courses in Coursera) be a solution to facilitate this sort of discussion.

To finish off this list, so subtly titled “Why I’m not the biggest fan of MOOCs,” is the fact that Tech is spending time and money on developing its online presence in this new realm of online education—something I see as rather unnecessary given the relatively stringent actions of the administration in cutting costs across the board, more visibly so towards the graduating classes. In addition, why not instead use the online education platform resources on improving the institution’s internal capabilities, for example curriculum diversification and student-faculty relation strengthening, that could improve Tech’s standards?

Despite these predispositions, I decided to try out a MOOC—partially to try and understand any and all hype behind these massive online courses—but primarily because Coursera is free to use, and to a college student on a budget, the word free is alluring. “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” was the course, taught by a professor from Stanford who would send lengthy yet enlightening emails to the 60,000 plus students enlisted in the class in addition to posting forty-five minute lectures of class instruction two to three times per week.

What I learned most from watching one lesson was not anything pertaining to the content of the video, but the quality of instruction in the subject matter to his viewers. The engaging behavior in which he was able to communicate to the audience was remarkable. Perhaps some professors are better in front of a video camera than a lecture hall of a few hundred students in all sorts of moods ranging from actively critical to comatose. Even though it was simply a one way lecture, his communication skills effectively managed to keep my attention after a full day of classes.

Although I can only assume that the faculty at the top-tier institutions involved in Coursera are more highly paid than Tech faculty, these videos, in my opinion, can serve as a building block for Tech itself. Instead of focusing on spreading its own reputation, Tech could potentially use MOOCs as a resource, more internally, to see on a fundamental level how other schools may approach teaching differently and how these schools are able to better reach out to students through their teaching.

After all, one of Dr. Peterson’s primary goals remains raising Tech’s national reputation to the caliber of some of the technological powerhouses like MIT, Caltech and Stanford. Considering that US News and World Report bases approximately 22.5-25% of its rankings on undergraduate academic reputation, having students who feel more confident and comfortable with the education they receive at Tech could help drive that goal forward.