Cyber student: higher ed gone 21st century
My parent’s yard is perfectly suburban—rectangular both in the front and the back, relatively level,
unencumbered by wild shrubbery or imposing trees. For years I’ve mowed this lawn. In fact, I’ve done
it so often that mowing is now somewhat meditative. The dull growl of the blade, the monotony of
following line by line by line in the grass, quiets my mind. I can think.
Now, because I’m an English major, my yard-mowing meditations commonly take me to literature. As
a result, I bring my iPod and listen to a course I got on ITunes U: Yale’s intro course to literary theory.
The situation is perfect: I can chew on the difficult ideas I encounter as I track purposefully through
the yard. Completely alone, I can weigh and consider each topic as it comes. Still, I can never discuss
the ideas with others unless I take them to Grand Valley. This is the only way I can effectively
incorporate the ideas into my mind, by conversation with others.
Interestingly enough, a current movement in academia is making way for courses like those on iTunes
U, called massive open online courses (MOOCs), that would not necessarily complement, but perhaps
replace, much of undergraduate education. Offered online for free by for-profit companies, MOOCs
are taught by professors from a variety of elite schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Duke. Instead of
just broadcasting lectures, MOOCs require student participation. To keep up with the course, the
thousands of participants must take online quizzes and exams, as well as contribute to discussion
boards. Thus, this new Internet based dynamic could, for some, provide an alternative to traditional
Plus, MOOCs are oftentimes framed as the solution to the financial problems facing many American
colleges. Why? For one, MOOCs can provide lecture content for students at any school, thereby
freeing professors to focus on class discussion and labs. Proponents also argue that MOOCs present
an opportunity for every college student to get an Ivy-League education. At its most virtuous, the
argument for MOOCs focuses on how they could provide a great education to anyone with an Internet
Some educators, however, claim the rise of MOOCs could mark the near-death of American higher ed.
For example, if MOOCs become dominant, they could very well dismantle entire faculties at mid-range
universities across the country. Indeed, if administrations consider online lectures just as effective as
in-house lectures, there will be no need for tenured professors. Faculties will diminish, small colleges
will outsource to Harvard-taught MOOCs, and professor-student interaction will take a back seat to
In my mind, there is one question students must put forth in the debate on MOOCs: in what sense
could our education at college—meaning being physically present; living, studying, eating there—be
traded for an education got online?
I’ll hazard half an answer:
Before I transferred to Grand Valley, I went to a massive public university. At noon, I’d sprint from my
French class on the east side of the campus to my Psych class on the west. By the time I’d make it to
Psych, the 500-seat lecture hall would be filled by the 6oo freshmen signed up for the course. So, I
would sit on the stairs and take notes. I’d have to stop, however, as stragglers stumbled in and
students exited to respond to phone calls or texts. What’s more, I could barely see the professor and
had no sense that she’d ever even noticed my existence in the sea of faces in front of her.
I remember, one class just before I transferred, feeling a distinct urge to make my presence known. If
I would have heeded it, I could’ve stood up and brazenly announced that I was in the room. I could’ve
asked a question and demanded an answer. I could’ve stolen my professor’s attention. Indeed,
despite feeling as though I was lost in a sea of faces, I was still there, still present. To make this
presence meaningful, I transferred to Grand Valley.
Perhaps the importance of physical presence is lost on those who want MOOCs to replace, rather than
complement, the whole of higher education.