The New York Times recently reported on the San Jose State’s Philosophy Department’s critique of online courses, as the university considers issuing credit for students who take and pass an edX online course taught by Professor Michael Sandel.
However, one thing that’s often been missed in the reporting is that San Jose State is pioneering in allowing its students use online courses for credit. This year, several courses in the math department are available as online courses. As far as I understand, there is still graded homework, and a proctored test at the end of the semester. But it only costs $150, rather than $740 for an in-class course, and it’s available as an Open University (non-matriculated community enrollment) course as well. You get full university credit for the course, making it a terrific bargain.
I can vouch that the university students have been eager to have online options. I remember nervously waiting with Neil before his Calculus II class began. I spoke to a transfer student who, because of a system quirk, wasn’t able to enroll in a Calculus II class before the semester began, and was just hoping for a spot. He needed the course as part of his Computer Science major, and more than anything, he wished a section was available online so he wouldn’t end up with odd classes at odd hours.
You gotta give it to the philosophy professors — they know how to argue well. Their argument roughly boils down to opposing the fact that more online courses means there will be less need for philosophy professors. Behind that there’s some insipid commentary about social justice (yo, the 80s are calling, they want you to know it’s 2013 now), and the better argument about the value of interacting with professors in real life.
Neil has enjoyed his math classes at San Jose State, and enjoys talking with the professors occasionally after class. This semester, however, he took an online class rather than a class at San Jose State. The classes is Bob Sedgewick’s Analytic Combinatorics I and II on Coursera. (And yes, Neil refers to him as Bob Sedgewick, not Professor Sedgewick.) He’s enjoyed it as much as his real courses, and says Sedgewick (possibly because of the medium) uses many examples. And Neil likes that Sedgewick is a disciple of Don Knuth, because anyone taught by Don Knuth is someone Neil would love to learn from.
This amazing class is free, and includes problems Neil spends hours working through each week. But there’s a clear downside in that he can’t ask the professor questions after each lecture. And only a very few work through the problems and post in the associated forum. And I missed sending Neil off to a campus to hang out with professors and students. There was always something going on, like a fundraising barbecue, or products being test-marketed on students. The ROTC will march through; so will an occasional student protest, or ethnic dancers celebrating the Day of the Dead. I bet there’s even a philosophy professor hanging around willing to argue with you personally about the effect of online courses in education.
So where does San Jose State go? They’ve come up with a good hybrid, giving their students classes with star professors, but still with a campus life and presumably access to someone on campus (like a T.A.) to discuss problems, at a price which works both for students and the university.
And whither higher education? Besides Sedgewick’s course, Neil’s listened to lecture series by professors from Stanford, Brown, Cornell, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and more (largely via The Teaching Company and public lectures), something he’ll never be able to do as a student at a single college. And with distance learning, you don’t have access to the professor at all, though if you’re lucky, you can get a good discussion going with fellow students. And yet, if we limit ourselves to distance learning, where are the professors who come up with different ideas and angles on a topic, and how do they get us to come check out their courses, live or online?