On online courses

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September 9, 2013

11:40 PM

The College of William and Mary has been reasonably resistant to the small but growing trend among upscale universities to offer massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, to the general public. In February, Provost Michael Halleran said the College created a committee that would explore possibilities for online learning but that, “MOOCs do not work. They have been shown to lose money.” This fall, the College is offering an online course at the Mason School of Business. The course is not considered a MOOC because it costs money, and most MOOCs are free. While many MOOCs can have thousands of participants, only a small number of students are enrolled in the School of Business’s online course. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see the College has decided to experiment with online learning at all.

Online courses benefit the College by expanding its name and influence. Arguably, it isn’t enough anymore to be a great school; you need a brand, and these courses can help develop a better “William and Mary” brand. Allowing adults who are looking to further their education online to experience the College may increase the chances that those adults will encourage their children and others to apply to the College.

On principle, attempting online education, if only to gauge the potential for future sustainability and effectiveness, is good for the College because it signifies the desire to innovate. Online courses haven’t made it to the mainstream yet, and the College taking the initiative before most schools allows it to make more objective, informed policy decisions about them. The College is unlikely to become the face of online education — the importance of this one course shouldn’t be overemphasized — but other universities could learn from our successes and failures. That said, the College’s reluctance to offer them is understandable, and it will also be understandable if it decides not to expand them beyond the School of Business — or to implement any real MOOCs. As Halleran said, they aren’t profitable. Schools like Harvard University and Yale University can afford to provide MOOCs cheaply and at a loss — the College will likely never be able to do this. The School of Business is offering its online course, “Managing Small Businesses Successfully,” at $995. Although it’s expensive for a one-month class, the College might not otherwise be able to offer it. And the College should charge for its services — traditional MOOCs are often entirely free, which devalues the worth of college courses, in addition to the services of the professors teaching them.

Online classes themselves may not even turn out to be an optimal method of education. They have the potential to limit student-professor relationships as well as student interaction and community. And education should encourage students to refrain from being insular, to meet new people, and to have new experiences. Courses taken exclusively on a computer don’t necessarily promote these things. In order to become more knowledgeable about the world, it’s important to see more of the world than the top of your desk and the screen of your computer.

The College may find that online courses are unsustainable or that to make them sustainable, it would need to offer them at unaffordable rates. Either way, the College is to be applauded for exploring something that could be of great benefit to many. And when online courses do become part of the mainstream in the higher education world, the College will, at the very least, have a bit of preliminary experience with them.

Abby Boyle recused herself from this staff editorial to remain unbiased in her reporting.

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