Campus from your computer screen

Laura Wright

In her visit to the Senate of College Councils last Thursday, Student Regent Ashley Purgason was quick to say that online courses “are here to stay.” More grim than enthusiastic, she assured students that online courses represented the way of the future and that faculty and students are being actively consulted about the courses’ development. The students, for the most part, seemed nonplussed by this announcement.

Why is online learning the way of the future? When I asked other students if they like online courses, their responses universally lukewarm included the following: The courses are easy to game. They’re what you make of them. They’re easier. One student responded by saying he had never taken an online class, only to remember that he had, and the experience had been so unremarkable that he had completely forgotten about it.

They had all taken online courses. Why? Because they were accessible, and these students needed the course credits the online courses provided to complete their real-life degrees. 

The accessibility of online courses makes ignoring their rise impossible (or at least foolish). And the UT System has already made a move to develop online courses. Last October, UT invested $10 million in the nonprofit online course platform edX, joining Harvard, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley in developing massive, open online courses that could be taken for free — although not for credit — by anyone in the world. The move, as The Texas Tribune reported, was praised by Gov. Rick Perry, who said that the partnership was “great news for Texas” and “exactly the type of effort [he hopes] more schools will consider.” 

The editorial board of this paper, however, took a more skeptical view, saying that “fully online courses, like those that will be offered through edX, are as yet unproven substitutes for in-person learning.” The UT System would be wise, suggested the editorial, to provide a vision for what online learning might look like before they pony up the money for a new delivery system. 

In the five months since the partnership, eight more universities have jumped on the edX bandwagon, including Australian National University, Wellesley College, and Rice University. UT is planning to launch four courses through the edX platform in the fall. Given the enduring appeal of online courses and the suggestion last Thursday by Purgason that they are the future, what should a brick-and-mortar university like UT do to prepare for the rise of online education? 

When asked about how UT-Austin can better prepare for the rise of online courses, Harisson Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, suggested that UT do three things: Engage faculty and students in course development, establish new partnerships with other educational institutions, and invest in technological infrastructure on campus. I suggest we do a fourth: Define the values of a UT education we want to persevere in this rapidly changing educational climate. 

What do I mean by values? I mean, how much do you value sitting in a Welch lecture hall and listening to your professor speak? How much do you value retrieving a book from the PCL stacks or studying in the Hogwarts-esque Battle Hall reading room? How much do you value living in an on-campus dorm like Jester?

All these are linked to the idea of college as a campus-centric experience in which you interact face-to-face with other students and your professors. And while I could never claim that online courses present an immediate threat to this experience (edX courses aren’t even offered for credit, after all), every day a student completes their coursework online, from home, is a day they don’t come to campus and walk past the Tower, past the South Mall, past 60,000 other students who have come from somewhere else to learn here, in a classroom on the 40 Acres, instead of through a website that just happens to bear the school’s name. 

Wright is a Plan II and biology junior from San Antonio.