At the same time, online education can do what established schools and universities don’t do well. Massive open online courses, often called MOOCs, are exactly what their name says: Web-based classes open to tens of thousands of people around the world, who can usually take them for free. For my social-science research on teen fatigue, for example, I needed to learn basic statistics, a subject I’d never studied. So I went to Udacity, an online learning company that was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford University professor, after he made an introductory artificial-intelligence class available for free on the Web — and more than 160,000 people in 190 countries enrolled. With Udacity, I didn’t have to sign up at a community college, buy a textbook, pay tuition or even leave my bedroom. I simply learned what I needed to learn, from standard deviation to confidence intervals, when I could.
One worry about such classes is that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, roughly 90 percent of people who enroll fail to complete them. In one course, at least for a time, I was one of those people.
A year ago, when I had only a general interest in computer programming, I started Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science.” I didn’t get past the first few lessons. But when I began thinking about developing a mobile phone app, I finished the course and learned programming basics using the language Python. Big online classes work best when a motivated student has a specific use for the material.
The debate about online education is polarized — it’s either a grand solution for schools’ troubles, or it’s a menace. For example, the Economist recently reported that, because of MOOCs, “the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations.” Thrun predicts that in 50 years, only 10 institutions of higher learning will remain. Two Stanford scholars conclude that online learning represents nothing less than “a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”
At the same time, one prominent English professor at the University of Virginia, where the debate over online education nearly brought down the university president who resisted it, has argued that “Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is.” Professors at San Jose State University have protested that offering online classes would “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”
Based on my year away from traditional school, I think we’re looking at a new method too narrowly. Classroom education is not a relic. And online learning isn’t a pale imitation of “real” education, a dumbed-down version that endangers quality and excellence. The reality lies where it usually does — somewhere in between.
Classroom education won’t and shouldn’t be fully replaced by Web courses, but it could draw on what works online. For instance, in many high school courses, students could watch short video lectures at home to understand key concepts and then use class time more for discussions and group projects. Huge online courses have many virtues, but they need to do better at fostering the side-by-side collaboration that my generation will need on the job. In the end, each approach could strengthen the other.
That’s been true for me. I learned a lot studying online, but on Monday I’ll return to my school for 11th grade. Yet I’ll be returning as a different kind of student, one who sees the good points of the classroom more clearly but who also knows that virtual classrooms can be just as important as blackboards and desks.
Sophie Pink is an 11th grader at Washington International School.