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As U.Va. announces its partnership with an online course program, should we lament the erosion of classroom-based higher education?
SOMETIMES APPARENT coincidences are anything but, and the University of Virginia's announcement that it will offer online courses--just weeks after a controversy in which the university's lack of such courses was one point of contention--might well fall into that category.
U.Va. rector Helen Dragas suggested during the school's recent leadership crisis that its briefly ousted president, Teresa Sullivan, had failed to embrace online course offerings as a critical element of the university's future, as they already are at other institutions.
Well, maybe. But can't that form of education be left to the Phoenixes, Kaplans, and the at least 200 other for-profit schools that offer online courses and degrees? That's what they do, and they have a pretty good head start.
To be clear, the U.Va. initiative would appear to merely test the waters of Internet-based education. The online program, called Coursera, brings together 16 prestigious, heretofore strictly bricks-and-mortar schools, including Stanford, Princeton, Duke, and Georgia Tech, and offers courses under their names online. The courses are free and offer no credit, hence the experimental air.
But is this how the erosion of classroom education begins? Could a student, in the future, obtain a U.Va. degree without ever setting foot on the historic grounds of Thomas Jefferson U.? Say it's not so. Would an employer look at such a degree and equate it with one that involved classrooms and human contact with actual professors? Hard to imagine.
The time constraints and other challengers of the modern student merit some sympathy. Online offerings, community colleges, and four-year institutions offer a variety of options designed meet those demands, all in their own way.
In making the announcement at U.Va., President Sullivan emphasized that the courses "will in no way diminish the value of a U.Va. degree," but will instead allow the university to extend "the learning environment of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village" to a broader audience. Online courses may be billed by her as a way to "enhance our brand," but a motivation of perhaps greater importance lies with the business office. In an era of shrinking state support for higher education, online students are more or less self-sufficient. They don't affect class size or student-teacher ratios. They don't need dorms, or lighting, or air conditioning, or parking spaces.
Consumers have learned by now that efforts to produce a product more cheaply often cheapen the product. Heaven forbid that is ever the case with a University of Virginia degree.