Education Through A Laptop

By Mekala Neelakantan | SQ Staff Writer | SQ Online (2014-15)


In an age where technological advancements seem to be around every corner, it is not difficult to imagine that such developments are entering the world of education as well. We are quickly approaching a lifestyle based increasingly on instant gratification and the necessity for the widespread dissemination of information, with examples prominently displayed in university education. With the excited frenzy surrounding internet TED talks and its associated ability to educate millions of people using innovative lectures given by leaders in technology and science, it is clear that such forward methods of teaching are attractive; following the introduction of online university courses, or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), this attraction to online education only seems to be growing.

Examples of this interest in MOOCs can be seen at UC San Diego, a university that prides itself on developing the latest and aspiringly greatest educational techniques for its students through a recent program known as the Education Initiative. The initiative began in 2012 and utilizes committees to develop new and better teaching strategies for professors. Examples of this interest in various types of education also extend to other rather unconventional teaching methods including pilot “Credit by Exam” classes and various other experimental class setups.

However, amidst all these new possibilities, some of the benefits of the professor-to-student approach may be lost, an argument that has been brought up since the introduction of MOOCs in 2008.


These Massive Open Online Courses are the newest in a string of developments associated with “distance education,” a concept that has been present in university education since the early 1890s. The idea of distance learning for students not present in a traditional classroom, however, has been gaining traction in recent years because of our increasing abilities to communicate and interact with the world through computers. Early MOOCs, such as the Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online (ALISON) education provider, focused on giving the public quick and easy access to basic courses, mainly through providing necessary resources to those who would otherwise not receive them.

Beginning in 2012, however, students and the rest of the public saw a huge influx of MOOCs being utilized for higher education purposes at institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose platforms were being delivered by the three major online education providers: Udacity, EdX and Coursera.

Essentially, MOOCs function as online courses for enrolled students offered through video lectures and interviews with leaders in respective fields and include resources such as online assignments, peer forums and electronic feedback from professors. At UCSD, the idea of MOOCs was first introduced in 2013 as part of an initiative created by Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. The courses are still in their pilot, not-for-credit stage. In conjunction with Coursera and the Qualcomm Institute, UCSD professors released their first MOOC, “Drug Discovery, Development and Commercialization” later that year, garnering 12,400 signups. Since then, UCSD has developed seven more MOOCs, all offered through Coursera and all involved in science, health and technology. While some of these courses (e.g., Bioinformatics Algorithms and Climate Change in Four Dimensions) are fairly specialized, some present more basic material, such as the “Algorithms, Biology and Programming for Beginners” course, demonstrating the university’s hope for MOOCs as the “next big thing” in core college classes.

The Next Big Thing

Clearly, MOOCs have extensive benefits on a public scale, with possibilities of providing cost-effectiveness in a climate where any method of dealing with university budgets – especially those of the UCs – is welcomed. With the possibility of introducing fee-based options for core college classes, the cost-effectiveness of MOOCs in providing ideally high-level education to an astounding number of students is an incredible offer, undoubtedly appealing as part of UCSD’s Education Initiative.

MOOCs also provide outlets for those students interested in a variety of courses to learn and educate themselves from top-notch scientists and professors from all over the world. The courses are delivered in understandable chunks of information, and the introduction of peer forums and discussion boards may be able to facilitate easier conversation between students.

What About Teachers?

There are, however, more than a fair share of drawbacks to these MOOCs, which may act as the “next big thing” in university education.

As mentioned above, MOOCs are extremely cost-effective, clearly an important aspect for public universities under financial strain. However, such a feature has a very real possibility of affecting the quality of teaching, may lack in educating students at the university level and may not be able to provide students with official transcripts for having successfully taken the class. MOOCs currently only provide a certificate upon completion.

MOOCs are very science-centered. Students enter the courses with varied backgrounds in prerequisite subjects, and there is no guarantee that all students are on the same page with regard to the presented material. The lack of personal interaction and the possible support system provided by teachers is especially important, and without the individualized learning system provided by professors in office hours, the idea of learning and understanding dense science material becomes a very daunting task.

The idea of substituting core classes for MOOCs would present an additional challenge for those students struggling in self-motivation, and those not driven enough to complete these online courses and set goals for themselves would find themselves at a loss without a professor who could provide assistance.

The Bigger, Brighter Future

As is possibly human nature, we tend to associate technology as immediately being the bigger, brighter future. However, there is a reason why the institution of education has been kept the same in its student—teacher format, and that is because it has generally been seen to work. Granted, the advent of MOOCs is a wonderful step toward globalizing education and allowing students all over the world access to immense educational possibility, but we would be mistaken to write off MOOCs as the future of education – especially university education.

Nothing can replace the invaluable service that a good professor can provide for a student; we interact with professors for a majority of our formative years and beyond, and this relationship can never be replaced with a computer, however cost-effective and technologically advanced it may be. Therefore, the next steps toward this bigger and brighter future must be to reconcile the technology-driven agenda of education with the needs of students, who undoubtedly require the valuable resources provided by human teachers. We need the strong personal interaction, the individualized learning, the professor-based support and the consistent quality teaching that MOOCs are yet to effectively provide. MOOCs might promise a bright future, but present education techniques might not be such a bad idea either.

[hr gap=”0″]