Sunday, 31 August 2014

Day 263: Campus Education vs. E-learning - My Verdict

With a rising amount of online tertiary courses being developed and made available, a debate has started about whether online education can guarantee the same quality tertiary education that a student would receive when attending a campus college. (See:

Anant Agarwal - the CEO of edX, a joint partnership between MIT and Harvard University that offers free online learning - sees the benefits of recording lectures and then making them available to a large amount of students. He says: "Of 155,000 students that took the course, about 5 percent passed the course and earned a certificate. So that was about 7,200. That is a big number. If I were to teach on campus twice a year, both in the spring and fall semesters, I would have to teach for about 40 years before I could teach 7,200 students."

On the other side of the table,  you have arguments such as the one formulated by Shyam Sharma from Stony Brook University: "In our discipline, the objective of students learning is not to basically learn the content of the discipline, but instead to use the content as a context to engage in intellectual discussions, to develop their positions, intellectual positions, to debate and argue and develop critical thinking skills. And that oftentimes requires the expertise and guidance and mentoring and close connection, one-on-one support to the students."

Having had the 'pleasure' of receiving tertiary education in a classroom on a campus as well as through online courses, with some subjects being the same, let me share my perspective.

Comparing the content-material of the subjects I took both at the campus college and through the online course - I can say it was largely the same. So, from that perspective, the 'quality' of the online course was no different than that of the campus college. Differences were mainly due to the fact that I attended the campus college in Europe and the online education in Africa, so case-studies and examples were local and therefore quite different. Considering that the core content was the same, which did I prefer? If I have to choose between sitting in a classroom with hundreds of other students where the professor is standing at the bottom with a microphone, or comfortably sitting at home and going through the material at my own pace, I have to say the latter is my preference. Video lectures can be paused and re-winded so a student can make sure he/she hears all the information. This luxury doesn't exist in a classroom, where one can get distracted by other students, or simply miss information as one is splitting one's concentration between hearing what the professor is sharing and writing it down simultaneously.

To attend classes I had to either travel from my home town to the campus each day, spending time and money to be able to sit in the class room, where most of the time I had to hear the professor repeat what was already explained in the textbooks - or I needed to rent a room on campus/close to the campus to not waste the time traveling between home and campus - but this obviously came at the extra cost of paying rent. It was the fact that 'the professor might share information that is not already covered in my books' that required me to attend, in order to make sure I had all the material necessary to prepare myself for assignments and exams. I didn't find that for the subjects that I took in both scenarios - which were largely theoretical - that I gained anything from sitting in the class room - the amount of students that attended the course were plentiful, not really allowing for any one-on-one support in any case. For some subjects I was sitting in a room with a thousand other students. Rather then, make one lecture that can be used by many universities - and professors can add their own insights, examples, exercises and notes to provide their personal touch. This was exactly the format that was used in my online education.

Now, there were subjects I attended on the campus college that were very different in nature from the ones I attended online, where the focus of the subjects was to develop practical skills such as working in teams, making presentations, going out in the field, interviewing people, etc. For such subjects where you require to produce and present a project through team-work, there are benefits to physically sitting in the same room and having a personal relationship with your co-students. It is in these instances that I would say it is worthwhile having an actual campus with professors assisting students to develop these skills.

When it comes to 'developing critical thinking skills' as an argument for class-attendance - I have to disagree. Critical thinking should be a focus in primary and secondary education. If a person is supported from an early age to develop a clear vocabulary and to develop common sense, then whether one is at home going through material or sitting in a class room - one can view the material in a critical manner either way. Online platforms such as forums can be utilized for students to exchange views on subject material as well. I personally engaged critically with all the material I was presented with throughout my online education, of which the Economist's Journey to Life blog is a clear testimony.

So, I believe that campus college education has been romanticized and been given more credit than it actually deserves. A large part of college and university courses can be provided online. This would reduce the cost of the education and make it accessible to a larger audience. Why have professors - experts in a certain field - spend their time every year giving the same lectures over and over again - when they could record it once and then make it available to students to watch at home? Surely, humanity would benefit if professors were able to dedicate a larger portion of their time on research and developing solutions to current problems? Reducing the cost of tertiary education, more students could afford it and avoid the trap of student loan debts. Some degrees can then be followed online entirely, whereas for others a mix would be optimal, to have some subjects/courses online and have classes in education centers/on campuses for practical skill development.