On the Quality of Online Courses

Are online courses a good thing, a bad thing, or relatively neutral? There's much to debate.

The main issue, as far as I'm concerned, is pedagogical. Are online courses a good way to teach critical thinking—the primary goal of undergraduate education?

There are tangential issues that often get in the way of dealing with the important questions and I'd like to deal with one of them here.

In a previous post [Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education?] I criticized a newspaper article by Michael Geist because he made an incorrect assumption. He assumed that any online course from a "top-tier" university would be serious competition for the average Canadian school. I selected two courses from MIT and showed that the quality of their biochemistry teaching was not a threat.

This point needs to be emphasized. Just because an online undergraduate course comes from Harvard, MIT, or Stanford does not mean that it's a good quality course. In my own field of biochemistry I know of many, many teachers in small schools throughout North America who can teach biochemistry better than famous research professors at the so-called "top-tier" schools.

It still may be true that students will flock to the Harvard, MIT, and Stanford courses and pay those schools for biochemistry credits but let's not assume, without justification, that they are getting a better education.

Today I received a copy of Academic Matters: OCUFA's Journal of Higher Education, a magazine published by the Ontario Federation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). The articles are devoted to technology in the classroom ("Professor 2.0." ugh!). An article by Sidneyeve Matrix [Challenges, Opportunities, and New Expectations] caught my eye. She says,
When Stanford University offers massively open online courses (MOOCs) in science and engineering, in one case drawing over 150,000 participants, people take notice. When the Khan Academy wins significant Microsoft funding, posts 3,000 instructional videos online, and attracts massive traffic, stories proliferate about the future of self-directed, online, informal e-learning. ... Critics ask, what’s the value of having students attend a lecture in real time if essentially the same material is covered by world-renowned professors on professional-quality video courtesy of free services at TED-Ed or YouTube Education? ... Why pay enormous fees to learn from faculty in an accredited university program, when MITx offers free online courseware with options for students to get peer-to-peer and professor feedback, assessment and earn branded certificates of achievement? What is the return on investment for students (and perhaps their parents) opting to earn their credentials at a bricks-and-mortar university when they could join the 30,000 others enrolled at the London School of Business and Finance in their Global MBA program—delivered online via a Facebook app?
There's a myth here that needs exposing. The quality of undergraduate education in the sciences1 should be judged by the content of the course and not the prestige of the university that offers it. Let's not get bamboozled into thinking that just because Stanford and Khan University Academy offer an online course in biochemistry that it's necessarily a good course.

The MIT examples I highlighted in my previous post says that this is a a bad assumption. You can look at the Stanford University Courses and make up your own mind.

Here's the important point: don't just assume that because an online course exists, it is necessarily a good course. You may have legitimate reasons for thinking that online courses are good things, but that doesn't excuse you from actually looking at the quality of an online course before declaring that the producers of such a course did a good job. Putting a bad course online is worse than putting no course online no matter what you might think of online courses.

1. I restricted myself to the sciences because we are presumably judging quality by the ability to teach critical thinking and factually correct material. There may well be degrees and programs where this isn't important. For example, it may not be important who teaches MBA courses since the goal is just to get a degree to put on your CV. In that case the prestige of the London School of Business and Finance may be far more important than whether you are actually learning something useful, or correct.
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