Online learning has great potential and pitfalls

Professors Elliot King and Neil Alperstein's excellent commentary ("Ask the right questions about MOOCs," March 6) usefully identifies the potential strengths and weaknesses of small and large online courses. But two important considerations are omitted.

First, even excellent universities have some face-to-face courses which lack high-quality, student-connected, inspirational teachers. This is not unique to online learning. On the other hand, many instructors who teach both online and face-to-face courses strive to discover and apply ways in which the strengths of each approach can be used to improve the other. Online learners may miss out on the chance for helpful face-to-face interactions with faculty, but many young people today — students and faculty — are familiar with and are adept at online relationships.

Second, value matters. No matter how rewarding it may be to have a spontaneous chat with the professor on Aristotle and the ethics of drone strikes, not every student can afford it — or will choose to afford it. Traditional and newer universities continue to expand and experiment with their online offerings, searching for the best pedagogical and business models. Online education can offer an opportunity to students who could not previously afford college at all and an alternative to campus life for others.

The on-campus experience of Loyola University or MIT will remain valuable and attractive to many students. Others will choose to forego some aspects of traditional university life in exchange for the advantages of online courses. Many students will want some of both. Creating high-quality online-, hybrid- or MOOC-based education at a fraction of the cost of campus learning is the next critical challenge and opportunity for leafy-quad faculty and institutions.

Jim Quirk, Bethesda

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