Online irony: Virtual learning promotes in-person encounters

2 min read

In online learning, there is a sense that everything should be online.

We have held a series of town halls across campus to discuss edX/HarvardX. While highly regarded, a number of attendees always came up to me at the end to say, “Why wasn’t this done online? Why didn’t you flip this talk?”

The point of the town halls are to convey information, but more important, to have a lively debate among the faculty and other stakeholders. In person. In real time.

Could you do that on a discussion forum, sure—but you don’t have to do it that way. We, of course, post all of the materials after the fact and are thinking about doing virtual sessions as well (to reach more faculty at a time of their own choosing.) But I know the campus-based events will continue. Faculty, by their nature, gather, discuss, and debate everything.

Inside the virtual classrooms at edX and elsewhere, online is also only part of the story. There has long been the critique that MOOCs provide a lesser experience, removing the classic vibrant campus and replacing it with a 2D, lifeless screen. The extended argument goes something like this: for those who can “get in” and afford the real college experience, that’s grand. For everyone else, here’s a knock-off, lesser version. Hey, it’s free. What do you expect?

That’s turning out to be another myth.