Online learning not education’s future

Credit: Braden Kelner/Editor-in-Chief Credit: Braden Kelner/Editor-in-Chief
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Imagine not having to leave your room to attend class. Instead, your morning routine consists of climbing out of bed and turning on your MacBook. Video feeds of the professor and eight other students appear. After introductions, your professor asks a question about the reading.

Instead of waiting for a student to raise their hand, the professor asks each of you to complete a poll that will test your understanding of the assigned reading. Your answers are then displayed so that you can be called on to defend them. In this situation, you do not have a choice in answering, and, more importantly, you are kept on your toes. This is an example of a class at the Minerva Project.

Minerva is an accredited university with administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco. According to Ben Nelson, its entrepreneur and founder, and Stephen M. Kosslyn, the cognitive neuroscientist and former Harvard dean with whom Nelson has collaborated, this class setting is the future of higher education. Their goal is to replace the long-established college lecture with a virtual system of learning. What does this mean to the students currently attending college and sitting through lectures?

Kosslyn states that traditional lectures are cost-effective but pedagogically unsound. According to him, Minerva has an advantage over traditional universities in its incorporation of what his research has identified as the best educational practices.

He claims that forcing students to guess the answer to a problem and to discuss their thoughts with others, enables them to learn more, even if their guesses are incorrect.

Many of the points Nelson and Kosslyn make are true. There are such things as pointless lectures. Lectures become pointless when students choose not to participate and refuse to actually learn. Large university lectures are opportunities either for students to hide in the back and not participate or to actively learn from a professor who is an expert in the lecture’s subject.

However, Nelson and Kosslyn do not seriously consider the sacrifices that need to be made in order for traditional universities to follow Minerva’s example. Nelson claims that Minerva is an attempt to strip the traditional university down to its essence without lectures or tenure, just learning.

What about life outside of the lecture hall? College is about learning from the experts, but also learning about oneself. More often than not, we learn about ourselves through the people we meet and the places we go. Minerva is attempting to increase the value of its college experience by opening up more campuses around the world. This will definitely be a plus to all of those attending Minerva. However, there is still a distance between students and faculty inherent to Minerva’s online platform.

There is a critical social aspect to college that is lost as a result of education models like Minerva. There is something about letting students participate in on-campus organizations that brings people and ideas together. Look around Carnegie Mellon’s campus. As I write this, there are countless students communicating and collaborating to make a difference in their communities. The accessibility of professors encourages students to seek help when needed. However, if professors were only available through Skype, the easily accessible relationship between student and instructor would decline. It is the daily interactions students have both in and outside of class that let us truly value the college experience.

Minerva is a great example of how education could be improved. There is a definite benefit to applying pressure to students to participate in small groups. Minerva’s online platform does keep students attentive and forces them to learn. However, a lot of learning is up to the student.

Minerva strips away not only the college experience of lectures but also the opportunity to communicate and find one’s passions through social interactions. Activities fairs, where students proudly display what they have been doing outside of the class to make a difference and encourage others to share their ideas, are a great example of what the college experience is comprised of. If these interactions were not available, the concept of the college experience would decline.