Higher ed reform needs online education

On Sept. 17, an 11-year-old girl named Khadijah Niazi in Lahore, Pakistan was taking the final exam for a college-level physics class created by a Silicon Valley startup.

Kate Wong | Daily Trojan

As she was watching YouTube videos for the course, Niazi was interrupted by a message telling her the website was no longer available. The Pakistani government had shut down access to YouTube in an effort to block the anti-Muslim film that sparked protests across the Middle East. She was only able to finish the exam with help from people across the world taking the same course online. Her participation in and completion of the physics course was possible for one reason: the intersection of the Internet and education.

An article in Time’s special report on education last week told Niazi’s story to explain the benefits of online education and the role it is playing in American higher education. In an era where student loan debt has been estimated to top the nation’s entire amount of credit card debt, with tuition costs skyrocketing and the question, “Is college worth it?” being asked more and more frequently, online education should be looked at as the missing puzzle piece in solving our higher education crisis.

Online education is not a new phenomenon, but recent investments by top universities have propelled it forward. This May, Harvard University and MIT teamed up to create edX, an online education platform that offers free online versions of both universities’ courses. edX’s technology is also available as open-source software, which means any other university, organization or individual can use edX’s learning platform and even tinker with it to improve the technology. UC Berkeley and the University of Texas have since hopped on the edX train, creating BerkeleyX and UTx.

This is what online education has the power to do — break down the walls blocking access to the nation’s top universities, in turn increasing the quality of many more students’ education while simultaneously slashing the hefty price tag associated with these universities.

Taking education online also makes the experience much more collaborative and interactive on all levels, from Niazi in Pakistan completing her course with the help from a Malaysian student and a physics professor in Portugal to Harvard, MIT, Berkeley and UT coming together to create a bigger and better learning experience for anyone who wants it.

Part of this also comes from the idea of “startup” online education.

The course Niazi was taking in Pakistan was part of Udacity, a for-profit online education platform founded by two Stanford professors who saw that most online courses were of subpar quality and decided to do something about it, completely on their own. Can you imagine what higher education would look like if we transferred the Silicon Valley startup mindset to education?

This is not to say that we should totally abandon traditional learning models or brick-and-mortar university campuses. The problem is that the traditional learning model used at brick-and-mortar college campuses isn’t fully functional anymore, and many students can’t afford to try to make something work that is draining their money and time without much reward.

Online education, supplemented with elements of traditional education that still work and cannot be reproduced online, could restore American higher education to its former glory. And most importantly, it could provide all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status or even location in the world, a chance to be a part of that.

The world as we know it is slowly, but surely, moving online. We no longer solely rely on newspapers for the news, but check their online pages and Twitter for the most recent updates. We no longer fly across the country or world for business meetings in person but instead convene on Skype. Why should the way we learn be any different?


Elena Kadvany is a senior majoring in Spanish and is the Daily Trojan’s Editorial Director. Her column “Beyond the Classroom” runs every other Thursday.

2 replies
  1. Dan
    Dan says:

    I agree with your view of online education, as those who want to learn will show it through these, but it is a much more complicated issue than what you have discussed. For example, how are courses/”certificates” to be treated by potential employers/colleges? How can one trust that the work was done by each individual (there have been multiple cheating issues for courses I have taken online, some of which threatened the existence of the classes themselves). How can students be motivated to do beyond the minimum work to get a passing grade and truly learn? (Let’s be honest: what do you actually remember from the last pass/no pass class you took)

    I admire the work of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig (two of the main guys who started this wave w/ his Intro to AI class) and enjoy classes that I take online (I’m from a CS background myself). However, in my opinion, the classes should be used as a *supplement* (for now) to traditional education.

    The main problem with traditional college these days, to me, is the wide availability itself – college isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. It has saturated the admissions process and overall made a degree less valuable. And the problem with this is the entitlement that it brings: if everyone can get one, why can’t I? This extends to the working world: “with a college degree, I deserve a job.” What these online courses do to benefit us is to not only extend our own minds, but differentiate ourselves from other applicants, showing them that we actively seek to learn beyond the basic degree, that we are self-sufficient and take initiative. A degree on the resume might get you in the door, but many times it won’t be enough to close the deal and get the job – this is where online courses can help.

    Online education here should supplement what students are already learning that isn’t covered by the university already (or high school, in some cases). Whether these classes become more prominent on their own has yet to be seen – it could take awhile.

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