"Why Online Education Won't Replace College — Yet" I Disagree And Here Is Why

Recently, I read an article titled, Why Online Education Won’t Replace College–Yet. The article is most likely a response the recent success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as those offered by Udacity and Coursera. The author, David Youngberg an Assistant Professor of Economics, presents 5 reasons why online education won’t replace college. I disagree with his reasons, so I thought I should share more details. I will go through each of his 5 reasons.

  • It’s too easy to cheat. Cheating has always been an issue in education, and I think it always will be. Students even manage to cheat in ivory tower institutions. Online Colleges such as University of Phoenix have been very successful and cheating can easily exist in that scenario. I do think online classes make cheating easy, but I don’t really see that stopping the success of online education.
  • Star students can’t shine. This is just simply not true. The star students are the ones answering questions in the forums and getting the assignments done first. This is very similar to the star students in a regular college setting. The brightest students have their work done first and are frequently found helping their peers. Udacity has even hired one of the former star students.
  • Employers avoid weird people. Just because a person takes an online course does not make him/her weird. Taking an online course means a person is willing to find cheaper and easier ways to solve old problems. It also means the person has the initiative to go out and complete something. All of those traits are attractive to companies. The problem here is credentials. MOOCs have not yet solved the credential problem. MOOCs don’t offer degrees or widely-acknowledged certifications yet. Companies want to hire people with degrees, not people with a piece of paper stating “I completed an online course.” I think MOOCs will quickly figure out this problem. Also, many of the Coursera and Udacity students are former college graduates. Why are they now weird for taking an online course?
  • Computers can’t grade everything. Not so fast. Earlier this year, Kaggle and the Hewlett Foundation sponsored a competition to see if technology could be created to automatically grade standardized test essays. Well, the competition was a big success. See the full press release. The competition results will probably not generalize to all essays, but the technology to automatically grades papers is not that far away. Also, Coursera is experimenting with crowd-sourced grading of papers. One student grades the papers of 4 unknown classmates, then a final score is calculated by a computer. See the Peer Assessments section on the Coursera website. This technique may even be more effective than grading by a single highly-trained person.
  • Money can substitute for ability. The author argued that students will pay for tutors, buy dishwashers or anything else to help get better grades. I do not think banks are going to start handing out loans for dishwashers, so students can have more time for homework. I think MOOCs will allow students to learn without building massive amounts of debt.

Now, I cannot say with certainty whether or not MOOCs will replace traditional colleges. I just did not believe the above reasons are what will determine the outcome.

On a side note, this blog is focused on material about learning to become a data scientist. I think MOOCs are going to be hugely helpful for people wishing to obtain data science skills.

4 thoughts on “"Why Online Education Won't Replace College — Yet" I Disagree And Here Is Why”

  1. Regarding cheating, a simple solution is to let students cheat. Then if they want a certificate verifying their understanding (that’s what a degree is), test them in person for a moderate fee, e.g. $100. Some traditional universities do run online courses that require in-person exams, so this isn’t a novel idea.

    One concern that wasn’t listed is student motivation and engagement. I’d be curious how much time students spend learning in an online course versus an in-person course. Know of any studies that would not be subject to self-selection bias?

    1. David,
      Yes, I have read about using local testing centers to avoid the cheating issues. That is probably a good idea.
      What do you mean by “time students spend learning”? Would that be the amount of time a student spends on reading/studying/watching lectures?


      1. Yes, I wonder if students would spend as much time working on learning via video watching, homework, etc, if they did not necessarily have a structured meeting time with a group of other students. This isn’t really a measure of learning, but it may be a helpful proxy.

        1. That probably largely depends upon the student. Having a group with a planned meeting time does help with motivation. However, amount of time spent studying is probably not the result you want. It would be better to find the amount learned. I am not sure the best way to find that result. Standardized tests could be used, but they have their own issues to work around. In any case, it would be helpful to find situations where students learn the most. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any studies like that. I am sure the new MOOCs will encourage some such studies.

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