January 27, 2012

A net gain

A new online course doesn’t take the U of C education out of the classroom.

The University recently launched Open Climate 101, an online version of Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, the largest class offered at the U of C. The content of the course is now freely available online in the form of video lectures, quizzes, and online models. The only caveat is that one can’t get University of Chicago credit through Open Climate, though one can receive a certificate signed by Global Warming professor David Archer. Similar courses at other universities have elicited a variety of responses. Current students, in particular, have asked why they are paying thousands of dollars for the same content that others access for free. However, this concern does not take into account the value of a traditional college experience, which can’t be replicated in an online format. Overall, online courses benefit both the public and the University, and moving forward with a larger initiative would be in line with the University’s educational mission.

Digital content cannot yet replace key experiences afforded by the traditional classroom model. For example, a video lecture series, currently the most widely used tool, can never provide a student learning Spanish with the conversational skills necessary to become fluent. Discussion-based classes and writing workshops, for instance—two key components of the U of C’s Core Curriculum—derive much of their value from intangibles like face-to-face interaction, which cannot be translated to video.

Open Climate 101 follows in the footsteps of Yale’s “Open Yale Courses,” a program that boasts content from 25 past Yale courses in a wide range of departments. Harvard, which also has its own “Harvard Open Courses,” goes further, offering actual online courses for credit. M.I.T. recently announced plans to launch an interactive online learning platform this coming spring. “M.I.T.x” classes will give students access to online laboratories, self-assessments and online discussions. Access will be free but there will be a small charge for students who demonstrate mastery of content and wish to receive a credential.

Though parts of all of these programs are worthy of emulation, the University should steer clear of credentialing students in the process of developing its own online efforts. Obtaining a University degree should require a deep engagement with professors and peers as well as rigorous course work. If online education is set to become a larger feature at this University, it should do so in a way that ensures enrolled students remain the focus and the primary benefactors of the University’s resources. That concern aside, the University would do well to advance its commitment to the public interest by encouraging other departments to follow Open Climate’s lead. Simply put, the University would be doing the public a disservice by not putting additional courses online.

Open Climate 101 is a step in the right direction and signals the University’s willingness to take part in the evolution of higher education. In the future, however, the University should strive to be at the forefront of educational innovation rather than simply following in the footsteps of peer institutions.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.