Free access to online classes will challenge, improve education

It’s unnerving, to say the least: Higher education is more expensive than it’s ever been while its value has never been more questioned.

The “consumers” of education want to see a direct relationship between tuition dollars spent now and professional income a few years out, so the “producers” are facing unprecedented pressure to commodify the college experience. At a school like St. Olaf, one that prides itself on its small, traditional seminars, it’s easy to interpret structural changes as assaults on our core values. But one possible reform – putting introductory lectures online – could be an advantageous move for our students, faculty and surrounding communities.

The online-lecture phenomenon is national and growing. YouTube, usually seen as a fountain of lowbrow media and a gathering point for insensitive “trolls,” has become a source for Ivy League lectures in nearly every academic discipline. Schools are awakening to the benefits of “flipping the classroom,” which uses lecture as a supplemental material akin to a textbook reading assignment and moves the processing of information into the classroom. A common knee-jerk reaction to this shift is to assume that it will cheapen the value of an undergraduate degree. If anyone, anywhere can receive top-notch instruction from renowned professors, who would pay astronomical tuition for an antiquated formal education? But in reality, the flipped model has the potential to revolutionize education for the better by underscoring the distinction of a liberal arts experience while challenging the exclusivity of college.

If St. Olaf were to offer some of its lectures online, either in a restricted access forum like Moodle or on a public platform like YouTube, it would not diminish the importance or the uniqueness of what goes on in the classroom. It would amplify the contrast between the intake of information and the use of it. Passively absorbing a lecture does not mean you can write about, talk about or apply the subject matter. It definitely doesn’t cultivate a collegial relationship with classmates or an instructor. That can only happen in the old-fashioned, physical classroom environment that fosters discussion and collaboration. Public research universities may have to work harder to defend massive lecture courses and fully-online classes in the wake of these changes, but from where we stand on the Hill, we can rest assured that what happens here is a rare and valuable experience.

Beyond our limestone facilities, though, lies a world full of people who benefit immeasurably from the freer flow of knowledge facilitated by online lectures. There are infinite obstacles that can prevent an individual from enrolling in college – but here is an opportunity that requires nothing more than Internet access. Even people who have opted to pursue the formal route can explore topics beyond their primary fields or continue their education long after graduation. Advanced knowledge can have the accessibility of Wikipedia with the credibility of the academy; it’s an equalizing and galvanizing prospect. Do we want to be protective of our course content in a way that reinforces the elitism of higher education?

Of course, as it pertains to St. Olaf, one of the most significant concerns is that it would lead to additional strain on professors; it could demand much more time-intensive lesson planning. That’s one of the main reasons that the online lecture should be embraced in a gradual and restrained way. Professors already do a tremendous amount of work, and we can’t afford to overburden them.

All in all, we can’t demonize this possibility in the name of tradition. Moving academic content online and opening it up for free public use is the pull of the current, and fighting against it may just prove to be a waste of energy.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Abby Grosse ’15 is from Shoreview, Minn. She majors in English.

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