Online Class Myths and Fantasies

By Peter Galuszka

Far too often on this blog, a new program or an event gets taken far beyond its intrinsic value. One obvious example is a new program offered by Harvard and MIT for online classes.

The program is being touted by the right-wing crowd as the next wheel or airplane or laptop computer. It is being cited as a reason why University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was abruptly ousted from her job.

But what is the Harvard-MIT program? It is called edX and details can be found here. Among them:

  • The two prominent, private schools will offer course content to anyone who is online and pays a small fee.
  • There will be interactive components including chat rooms that differ from the usual distance courses that merely download a lecture video.
  • If you take the course and satisfy MIT and Harvard educators you get a certificate that you completed the course, but get NO right to use the course under the names of MIT or Harvard.
  • The courses do NOT entitle one to school credits from Harvard or MIT.
  • Students at MIT or Harvard may not get credit for the edX courses.
  • More schools are expected to participate


Interesting idea but not exactly the “revolution” in college education that some would have you believe. Students may gain from such courses, but they get no school credits from them that apply to a degree, especially NOT from Harvard or MIT.

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  1. Interestingly (to me at least) is the active consideration by Fairfax County Public Schools to a potential requirement each student take a least one online course prior to high school graduation.

  2. Peter, online education has not revolutionized higher education…. yet.

    But, then, Louis XVI thought that whole French Revolution thing would blow over, too.

  3. larryg Avatar

    I think the day is not far away when “certification” will be rigorous and credits awarded but the credits will be noted as to their “online” character and schools may limit the number of online credits someone can earn towards a degree.

    this is totally funny. The Armed Forces – totally determines who they will accept and train based on testing. Many Police, Fire, EMS, network security, etc, determine your fitness for a job by testing. Now what the heck difference in that paradigm is the difference between paper and online?

    We’re sounding like Luddites here.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Peter has a point up to a point.

    What’s being missed is the fact that the best professors, using movie production multimedia capabilities will provide better instruction than an average professor standing in front of 100 students in an amphitheater.

    It’s inevitable.

    When I attended Dear Ole UVA – Ken Elzinga taught Econ 201 and 202. He was a great professor. However, I sat in an amphitheater along with hundreds of my fellow students and listened and took notes. Once a week, I went to a smaller venue and interacted with a teacher’s assistant who answered questions.

    I see no reason why I couldn’t have watched a professionally produced multi-media lesson rather than squinting to see Ken Elzinga stand on stage and talk.

    How many fewer university professors will be necessary if auditorium scale lectures at every school are replaced by a multi-media presentation by the most effective professor in teaching that subject in the country?

    You’d still get to go see the TA once a week to get your questions answered.

    Liberals beware – runaway tuitions and technology are conspiring to deeply dampen the need for liberal college professors.

    Note: Ken Elzinga would probably be considered one of the most effective teachers of economics in the country and might well be the man on camera being exported elsewhere. He is also a staunch conservative.

  5. On a related note, I had a good friend in law school, who attended only the first two and last two weeks’ classes. Never saw him the rest of the time. He graduated and passed the bar exam. He became a Democratic state rep in Minnesota. He, obviously, didn’t need the lectures or Q&A sessions. Sorry Socrates.

  6. larryg Avatar

    re: “liberals beware”…. Methinks the defenders of “tradition” are not so easily classified as “liberal”.

    we usually call them “progressives” not “traditionalists”.

    I’m aghast that we have folks who want to treat UVA like it is a museum.

    Our economy depends on our ability to attract young folks to live and work here and “vision” recognizes that.

  7. Darrell Avatar

    How many fewer university professors will be necessary?

    Answer: None. They have tenure. Besides, who will write all those bogus reports and spend the grant money these schools need to keep their top tier status? No bucks, no Buck Rogers

  8. larryg Avatar

    you know.. this whole idea of education (and other things) becoming “too expensive” …therefore steps must be taken to make it less costly ….ergo… cut back on the biggest costs – personnel.

    Part and parcel of that is the influence of technology that actually allows things to be done with less people.

    the two biggest slackers that are yet to yield substantially to the same forces that have transformed other industries including manufacturing is health care and education.

    Both are seemingly top heavy with personnel (can we actually show this with data?), and both seem to resist adopting the transformational technologies that would not only reduce personnel needs and costs but add value to the overall proposition of their benefits to society.

    We live in a world of online banking and “cloud” computing and yet our medical records cannot reside where our bank and Facebook accounts do and even though we can “learn” quite well from the massive store of information now available online, it’s “not the same” as learning in an auditorium with 300 fellow students straining to discern the works of a thick-accented teaching assistant.

    Without change, UVA could become the higher Ed equivalent of Blockbuster or Kodak …. standing defiantly still while the flood waters submerge them.

    Is this something that should be a secret discussion between a University President and the BOV?

  9. It is the knowledge that is important, not the certificate, degree, or ticket, or grade for that matter.

    None of those things are of any improtance to the student, or how the knowledge is put to use: they are of value ONLY to the institutions that grant them.

    One possible outcome of these courses is that the unimportance of the ltitle recognitions such as grades, will gradually become more apparent and more accepted.

  10. What’s being missed is the fact that the best professors, using movie production multimedia capabilities will provide better instruction than an average professor standing in front of 100 students in an amphitheater.


    I think that is correct. Lookat the demise of opera companies as good recordings became widely avaialble. Why listen to the Farmville Opera, when you can get the MET, almost for free?

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