Commentary

Saunders: Online classes won't replace a Duke degree

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJuly 18, 2012 

An enterprising woman I knew a long, long time ago had the philosophy that she wouldn’t give away anything she could sell.

I, on the other hand, was always trying to convince her not to sell anything that she could give away.

Duke and several other top-tier universities feel the time is right for them to give away precisely what they’re selling — an education — although not all of it and not the full experience.

Duke, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, among other blue-chip schools of higher book learnin’, are offering free online courses to all with a computer and a desire to fill their heads with more than the latest flibberty gibberty on Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Won’t giving away the product they sell cheapen its value and infuriate parents who are coughing up $56,000 a year in tuition and room and board, I asked Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s spokesman?

No, he said. “It’s important to remember that these are all experiments. We’re not giving a degree online. Coursera (the California-based company that apparently birthed this bright idea) “brings together top universities online so that people around the world will have the opportunity to get a sample, a taste, of what the experience is really like. ... It can supplement it or extend it, but it can’t replace” the college experience.

Schoenfeld, Duke class of ’84, said he plans to take courses — World Music and Shakespeare — that he is interested in or “that I should’ve paid more attention to” when he was an undergrad.

Support for online

Fredessa Hamilton-Cobb, a 1977 Duke grad from Washington, D.C., said she is not bothered by the possibility of someone taking classes or perhaps even receiving a Duke degree online. “I’m at N.C. State now, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. Having seen it in action, I strongly support online learning,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton-Cobb, who teaches electronic media writing, said she figures Duke is offering the courses free for now “to work out the kinks. I’ve got a feeling that eventually it’s not going to cost less to take online courses; it’s going to cost more.”

Far from diminishing the value of a Duke education, she said, online courses may enhance it, since it could give Duke and its students access to world-class professors “who may not want to move to Durham.”

What? Who wouldn’t want to move to Durham?

Not the whole experience

Schoenfeld said, “We’re not giving away a Duke education anymore than Stanford is giving away a Stanford education or Harvard is giving away a Harvard education.

“I don’t want to minimize the importance of what people get online. ... That’s ideal for some people, but what you miss is being around a dynamic and diverse set of peers and access to our support services. The residential and classroom college experience still has some value after a thousand years.”

Right on. Anyone who’s ever left home to get all colleged up knows that some of the most valuable learning occurs outside the actual classroom, such as when you realize neither your Aunt Jennie nor anyone else is going to come in fussing and making you get up to go to class when it’s cold and rainy: you discover you’ve got to do that on your own.

You also learn how to get along with a roommate who does laundry just once a semester because he thinks that turning his Fruit of the Looms inside out magically makes them clean. (Yeah, that means you, Curtis.)

As reported in an N&O story this week, more than 650,000 people around the world have already signed up for the free courses. Could all this, I asked Schoenfeld, result in a smarter, more literate and educated populace?

“Certainly, that’s everyone’s hope,” he said.

A memorable public service announcement from 40 years ago showed Abraham Lincoln — who had no college degree — entering an employment office and being questioned by a distracted, sandwich-chomping interviewer.

Interviewer: Lincoln, right? So, you’re looking for an executive position. But what about college?

Lincoln: Well, I’ve done a lot of reading and studying, sort of on my own.

Interviewer: Look, Lincoln. I know you’re a smart guy, and you know you’re a smart guy. But you ain’t goin’ nowhere without that sheepskin, fella.

Without that sheepskin — which at Duke goes for around $42,000 a year — even job-seekers with copious amounts of knowledge derived from online studies may face the same question with which the impertinent interviewer concluded his interview:

Hey Lincoln. You got a chauffeur’s license?

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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