Online education challenges traditional classroom

Jeff Stern, Elon University junior, describes the benefits of the courses he takes online. Stern said human computer interaction, which he took through Coursera and Stanford University, helped him narrow the focus of his undergraduate research. Photo by Rebecca Wickel.

With the cost of higher education still skyrocketing, alternatives to traditional university courses are becoming increasingly sought after. Massive open online courses, MOOCs, are rapidly becoming cost-effective options for supplementary learning.

In addition to the flexibility and reduced cost of online learning, those who turn to the Internet to connect with professors and students are able to create a more diverse learning experience. Classrooms reach eager learners all over the world, and provide students with new ways to create an international learning environment.


“The possibility to take courses online allows me to broaden my horizon in such a great way, much greater than the usual education at my university,” said Matthias Furst, a linguistics student in Singen, Germany. “Online, the variety is much more open and much more accessible than at the university itself. That’s the key of success, to allow people to enhance their knowledge on demand, not in frequent lecture halls.”

Working outside the classroom to expand upon traditional courses is what many said makes MOOCs so appealing. While enrolled at a university, students are limited to a certain number of credits, or must pay a hefty price to overload. But adding online courses can help students narrow their interests to make better use of their traditional coursework, or simply increase understanding of a subject.

Jeff Stern, a junior at Elon University has taken many courses on Coursera. He said many of the classes he has completed online helped him choose his field of study, as well as the research he is currently conducting. Next semester, Stern is registered for Algorithm Analysis at Elon with professor Shannon Duvall. He plans to simultaneously enroll in the Princeton University section of Algorithms, part 1 on Coursera.

Stern said enrolling in classes online helps him do well in the courses he takes at Elon, without competing with the time and energy he needs for his major.

“Online courses fit my schedule and my interests,” he said. “It’s nice that lectures are short, I can watch them when my time is available, and I can explore different material with a very low-level commitment, financially or otherwise.”

In Mexico City,  Alejandra Torpey Gómez Lamadrid made the same decision. Torpey already has a graduate degree, but believes in learning for learning’s sake.

“I didnt think twice to start signing up in several courses of subjects related to business, or related to things I am curious about just for fun,” she said. “I thought, ‘I love learning, it is always good to learn or reaffirm what I already know.’ Plus, it’s free, it seems like I could be interacting with people from all over the world.”

Graphic by Rebecca Wickel


While many question the success of an Internet environment, experts argue the learning experience is not compromised. Connie Book, assistant professor of communications at Elon University, is part of a committee investigating the future of the blended classroom, and it’s future at Elon.

To challenge the idea that online classes limit interactivity and prevent engagement, she enrolled in a Coursera course with 180,000 other students. She found this wasn’t the case.

“The things we measure engagement by will be different,” she said. “Professors are interesting in the class, they send email summaries out, and there are a couple of students who have proposed questions via email that have also sent their pictures.”


Despite the cost effectiveness and flexibility of learning online, there are drawbacks to this growing style.

That’s why some organizations, like the Minerva Project, are trying to strike a balance between digital and physical learning environments. The new university is looking to combine physical school locations with digital classroom environments, establishing campuses across the globe so all students get an international, online education.

“As much as you can do info dissemination online, it’s harder to get some of the aspects of the collaboration,” said Robin Goldberg, chief marketing officer at the Minerva Project. “That never replaces the ability to interact with people live. There will still be an online component, but also residence halls. Imagine a true global perspective coming from students who are all over the world.”

Coursera is a MOOC leader, providing hundreds of thousands of students with various courses online.

Not being able to meet face-to-face with professors and peers is not the only downside of online education. Many students worry about their ability to get a job based on the training and skills they acquired online.

“Once online education through MOOCs gets really recognized, that will be a huge challenge for universities in some parts of the world, but not here in Mexico for example, where the name of the education institution in which you studied has a lot of weight on your resume.”

Without an official name to back-up the education and skills acquired, most people feel an education lacks value.


It is unlikely that MOOCs will replace traditional learning, according to Book. But the future of the education industry needs to modernize, and accept the benefits that online education can offer.

According to a 2012 Elon University/Pew survey of more than 1,000 technology stakeholders, the future of higher education will feature online learning environments and a proliferation of massive online courses.

“Online education is not a passing whim in education,” she said. “It’s here to stay.”


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