MITx, Khan Academy, and Online Education Are No Substitute for In-School Learning


"You dropped 150 grand on an education that you could've had for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library." 

"Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you'll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip."

While the characters in Good Will Hunting aren't discussing it, their conversation can shed some light on the current fervor over online education. These new initiatives will be more like public libraries than universities. They may come cheap — likely more than $1.50 in late charges — but those of us who aren't geniuses will still be sitting in lecture halls and discussion sections.

MIT recently launched MITx: the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange, in their own words "an initiative to offer exciting, challenging and enriching courses to anyone, anywhere, who has the motivation and ability to engage MIT’s educational content." Harvard later joined the initiative, and together, they announced EdX. 

Many stakeholders in higher education and the media are getting excited. Stanford President John Hennessy said of the project and others like it, "There's a tsunami coming." Many media heavyweights, such as the New York Times'  David Brooks are buying into the hype. Anya Kemenetz published DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010) and The Edupunk's Guide to a DIY Credential. 

Are we on the brink of an education revolution? I have doubts. Sure, the $60 million Harvard and MIT are investing in MITx is money well spent. And I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Kemenetz' books and have found them a useful guide for navigating sites like the Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseware. But will these projects be more like a university or a public library? After all, for people who have "the motivation and ability to engage educational content," there are already many resources available to the public to engage in lifelong learning. 

But, so far, public libraries and the Internet haven't been substitutes for schools and universities. One reason is that watching or attending lectures is, for most students, similar to reading books — it serves as an introduction to material. So a library of lecture videos will likely be pretty similar to a library of books. In order for learning of mastery of skills to take place, synthesis — where students, typically through various academic activities, move information from short- to long-term memory — is crucial. 

By the way, VHS and VCRs were invented over 30 years ago, so the argument that online education will work because students will have access to so-called "superstar" professors seems far-fetched. 

To be fair, many online education initiatives ask students to partake in these "synthesis" activities. But there's a legitimate question over whether the incentives will be great enough to stimulate student motivation. Human beings are social animals, and studies of dieting, exercise, and alcoholism show, for example, that there's no motivator quite like social pressure. My domestic partner loves yoga, for example, but doesn't have the self-discipline to practice at home, even though there's no special equipment at the yoga studio she needs to do a downward dog or warrior pose. 

Today's marginal college student needs the extra motivation, guidance, and discipline even more than traditional students. By all means, let's welcome the advent of online education and the benefits it will surely bring. At the same time, we should be realistic about its implications for the future of higher education.