November 3, 2011

Bucking the Online Course Trend

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Online course offerings are becoming increasingly common on college campuses. More than three-quarters of the country’s universities and colleges now offer classes through the Internet. Among students who have graduated in the past decade, 46 percent have taken an online class, according to the Pew Research Center. Cornell confirmed that it would add to the trend this past week, announcing that four languages — Modern Greek, Dutch, Romanian and Tamil — would be available to students through online videoconferencing for the 2012 academic year.The University’s decision to provide these courses through the Internet certainly has its advantages. It affords the administration a low-cost means to offer these languages at Cornell in the face of budget constraints. Dutch and Modern Greek were cut by the College of Arts and Sciences in 2009 and 2011, respectively, while Romanian and Tamil have not been available to students for at least 12 years. Cornell prides itself on the breadth of its academic disciplines. It is always commendable when the University can expand its course offerings to enable more students to study the subjects that interest them.But with higher education becoming increasingly digitized, the University should seek to preserve a hands-on learning environment. Though online courses serve as a convenient fix amidst difficult financial times, this should not become standard practice, even for courses with low enrollment totals. The University should always strive to recruit and retain faculty across the board.An online course does not compare to face-to-face learning. At its best, learning involves personal interaction among and between students and faculty. Only in courses on campus do students have the opportunity to engage in direct discussion with their professors or listen to how their classmates approach a subject and debate it. This is what ultimately refines a student’s thinking on a topic and advances his or her learning.While a student might be able to complete homework assignments and pass tests in an online course –– and may even legitimately learn the subject by the semester’s end –– he or she will lose the finer points of learning that can only be achieved in the classroom and that contribute to personal and intellectual development. Cornell may have made the right choice in offering these four languages online, but the University must be careful not to see digital classes as an equal trade-off for courses on campus or justify course reductions with the promise of online alternatives.   

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