It’s a weird wired world. There was a time not so long ago when attending college meant years of diligent high school prep, anxiously awaiting acceptance letters, and saying good-bye to mom and dad and Fido, for your first crack at living on your own. After a quick trip to the local Walmart, for the obligatory mini-fridge and microwave, life was good. The campus buzzed with activity, you shared news on the college square, tried to stay awake through an endless round of lectures, and in general lived and breathed the “college experience.”
But the rise of the internet is rapidly changing that “experience.” Today, online college courses allow many students to experience college in the relative calm of their own home. Virtual courses for social sciences are actually preferred by many students these days. The closest they come to those engaging conversations over a cup of coffee on the college lawn is a chat room or online forum. The lecture hall is a video seminar. The library, with its musty stacks of books, is now fully searchable and accessible online.
Even more, as the wired revolution continues to progress, the TV and the computer monitor have become interchangeable. In short, we have reached the point where motivated couch potatoes can access college from the TV screen, aided with popcorn, pizza and beer.
As online web lectures and seminars have become far more graphically exciting and higher quality, the TV makes an ideal viewing platform. Everything that is available online can be viewed and accessed on that 60 inch plasma. And both students and colleges are changing as a result. Colleges across the country are rapidly testing and adapting new online learning platforms, and even the most prestigious schools are looking for ways to increase their online offerings.
The University of California is taking a huge step into the online field this year, debuting 20 to 30 courses. While University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida and MIT have already established strong online presences, the UC has been a relative laggard. But faced with budget cuts and access issues, they have realized that online undergraduate courses can not only expand the number of students who can participate in college, it can also provide a revenue kick to the school. Online classes are expensive to develop, but once in place can be scaled to accommodate huge numbers of students at a fraction of the per person cost for live lectures and classes.
UC’s first course offerings will focus on large lecture courses, like Biology 1. But eventually they would like to offer most of their courses through online platforms. The university insists that these won’t be click-credits or a degree mill, but will be held to the same high standards as their on-campus classes. They intend to be the first elite school to offer high quality undergraduate internet classes and change the face of online education forever.
Of course, there are detractors. Kriste A. Boering, associate professor of chemistry and chair of Berkeley’s course-approval committee has supported the pilot project. But she wants it made clear, your couch and TV are not the same thing as a dynamic college classroom. And she adds that while the Department of Education in 2009 issued a report which stated that online education is equal to in-class learning, that report only examined four courses, used fuzzy math and statistics and was not even close to definitive.
Other critics of online education, or College TV, have noted that the primary motive for college excitement over online learning platforms has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with budgets. They point out that online is about “cheap” and increased enrollment, rather than supporting education in general.
But what if the time comes when college is primarily a TV experience? Can the “idiot box” become the “doctorate box?”
Enthusiasts of online education believe it can. Imagine people tuning into American Inventors, instead of American Idol. Imagine young adults engaged in conversations about the newest clean energy invention rather than the latest music phenomenon. Or imagine the possibility of an interactive course, with students in foreign countries, like Russia, where a couch potato student can participate in a conversation about a recent mining discovery, or new agricultural techniques.
Maybe, just maybe, if TV provided access to interesting and engaging knowledge based programming, like high quality university courses, young people would tune in and discover a whole new world. Then instead of watching “geek gets a date” sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, they could learn the real scoop on String Theory, from the best scholars in the field.
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