Tom Friedman Gets It Wrong

Tom Friedman is excited about Coursera.org, a new enterprise designed to offer online courses. Does not sound very new? I did not think so either. Here is part of what Friedman says in his column of May 15 in the New York Times:

“Coursera is the next step: building an interactive platform that will allow the best schools in the world to not only offer a wide range of free course lectures online, but also a system of testing, grading, student-to-student help and awarding certificates of completion of a course for under $100. (Sounds like a good deal. Tuition at the real-life Stanford is over $40,000 a year.) Coursera is starting with 40 courses online — from computing to the humanities — offered by professors from Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.”

Online testing, grading, and student-to-student help are available on any of several online learning systems that are widely used across the country, such as Blackboard. So this is not particularly novel.

Granting a certificate however is of doubtful efficacy: at my university I have to approve courses that students wish to take at other colleges. I routinely turn down online courses. The reason is that usually there is no security against cheating. Occasionally if exams are given live and supervised by a professional teacher I am willing to allow the credit to transfer. So if a student comes up for admission with a certificate from an online course, there needs to be some guarantee of security. Friedman mentions this – the developers understand that they have to solve that problem. Until they do so, I do not think the chances of this type of enterprise are very good.

Another point of difficulty is the reliance on video-recorded lectures. There is a vast literature that demonstrates lecturing is an ineffective medium of instruction. Interaction between the instructor and the student is critical. The student’s work is under close supervision in the most ideal situation of a small class, and a series of short assignments in which the student has to engage herself replaces the lecture of former times. While this is possible online, it is much easier done in person, in a real classroom.

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