Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Online courses and campus life can coexist

By CAITLIN McDONALD | February 14, 2013

What in the world is a MOOC? It is not some slang word for cows or a creature straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Rather, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These are classes taught by professors at various institutions that are offered to the public for free. As a result, often thousands of people enroll. For instance, in 2011, a Stanford professor offered a course that attracted a mind-blowing 160,000 students, shocking universities everywhere.

It is no puzzle what the appeal is in these classes. After all, they are free! Forget those near $50,000 yearly tuitions that prevent so many from even considering college, and say hello to free classes. If there were a way for the MOOCs to make a profit, it would ensure the rising success and growth of the online education business. And, as such, it could even have the potential to transform higher education.

Of course, there are countless people who shudder at such a prospect. This may include people invested in the classic campus-style university way of learning. When they think of MOOCs and the increasing dominance of online education, their minds may jump to I, Robot or some other creepy science fiction movie about technology taking over human existence. They see a situation in which parents will take one look at the selection of free, or extremely cheap, online college classes, and then say good bye to universities, including Hopkins.

It does not have to be that way, though. It is not a black or white world in which there can only be one form of learning. Some things can be learned online for little or no cost and others through small classes filled with discussion. It also depends on the person. If you’re an eighteen-year-old with much left to learn before you enter a career, online lectures may not be the answer. If you are retired and wish to learn about subjects long forgotten or never learned, online lectures would be perfect.

The fact is, MOOCs should not, and most likely never will, fully take over university life. There is simply no comparison of educational value between the two. How much can you learn from a video of a professor and a chalkboard? What if you are confused? Can you ask the professor a question? What if you want to ask the professor a deeper question about the content? Learning how to apply concepts or how to analyze them would be difficult in an online, impersonal setting. There are no discussions, science labs, scientific research, debates or class participation, all of which make up an essential part of education.

On the other hand, in college, students interact with professors, graduate students and other classmates on an intellectual level that forces them to open their minds to new ideas, form hypotheses and test them against evidence, and decide for themselves their opinions. Overall, it teaches us to think critically.

Far from being a threat to university life, MOOCs can surely be successfully incorporated. If not for actual college credit, it could at least act as a supplement. I, for one, know that at times when I am confused about something that the teacher has covered, I look to outside sources and alternative explanations. What could act as a better supplement than MOOCs? They come from established institutions where there is no doubt that the lecture is of high quality, so although it is not on par with face-to-face teaching, it would still be of great assistance.

There is a definite place for MOOCs in society and even to a degree on college campuses. But fear not, university life isn’t going away anytime soon.

Caitlin McDonald is a freshman Economics major from Westport, Conn.

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