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Are you seriously asking if online education is as effective as face-to-face?

April 30, 2012

In a blog post in Education Week, Jason Tomassini offers a brief review of a recent article in the New Yorker that states “There are no walls between Stanford and Silicon Valley. Should there be?” At the end of his summary of the New Yorker article, Tomassini asks this question: Can online schools capture the same education experience as brick-and-mortars? I shot back an answer in the comments. Here it is:

Of course online schools can’t capture the same educational experience as face-to-face schools. Any thinking person knows that. Be wary of politicians like those in Michigan getting involved, because this decision is ultimately a financial one, and the losers will be ones who are already losing. The rich will get richer and poor will get poorer.

In the New Yorker article, we see millionaire and Standford president John Hennessy contemplating expansion into online education, but asking if the move will be good for Stanford is the wrong question. Elite students will continue to have elite Face-to-Face educations at elite schools. In their elite classrooms they will have intimate conversations with their elite professors, discussing whether or not online education is a good thing for all the non-elites out there.


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  1. Amen. Why are there so few willing to state the truth about this? As an educator, I am fatigued and frustrated by my fellow ed techies who wax philosophical about greater access, “disruptive innovation,” and the brave new world of online learning. The truth is that, as coursework at Stanford and other elite institutions become available to 99% of us for free, the barriers to accessing an elite face-to-face education at those institutions will be greater and more fortified than ever.

  2. My son (in high school) is taking an on-line philosophy class from the University of California. Every week, there are in-depth, on-line class discussions with the prof or a PhD candidate TA. The class size is 10 or less. While F2F interaction would be nice, I see his on-line class experience as a strong net positive.

    • I’ve got to admit that sounds great. I think online can provide excellent opportunities to supplement F2F learning. I’m guessing you still want your son to attend a university and get the full experience. My hunch is that some parents in the future won’t have that option.

      • I see Western higher education entering a period of disruption, becoming more organic, mobile, and individualized, with experience gained outside the classroom becoming as important as information gained inside the hallowed halls. Technology is allowing the world to becoming a classroom. Our friend Weezie dropped out of Pitzer at 19 to pursue a more personally tailored form of education ( There are a growing number of public and NGO initiatives helping to define and initiate new “universal access” educational hybrids, such as the NYU / Yale project with the UN (

        Would I rather have my son “attend a university to get the full experience.” I think a degree is more important than ever, but am wondering if a balanced combination of edu-travel / real-world experience coupled with on-line and classroom education wouldn’t be a richer and more meaningful and preparatory life experience than 4 years behind 4 walls.

      • Again, I have no doubt those are wonderful experiences, but you have named three A-list schools to illustrate your point. I’m sure there are all sorts of innovative approaches taking place at these schools, including edu-travel, but it’s the middle-of-the-road schools like the one I teach at that I’m concerned about. It’s the average student whom I teach who is struggling to put together sentences while holding down a full-time job at the sandwich shop. They’re the ones who are going to lose in the long run – while our kids are edu-traveling.

      • Guess I’m missing the point. It seems that virtual university services will bring increased access to degree programs, not less. A net positive for all, no? Rather than being elitist, the Yale / NYU program is all about making higher education available to the marginalized – those who previously could not afford school, or who were physically or ideologically unable. From their site:

        “a Tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally. Based on the principles of e-learning and peer-to-peer learning, coupled with open-source technology and Open Educational Resources, UoPeople is designed to provide access to undergraduate degree programs for qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints. Founded in 2009 by educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef, UoPeople has partnered with Yale University for research, New York University to accept students and Hewlett-Packard for internships. To date, students from 130 countries have been accepted.”

      • Yes, you do seem to be missing the point. Please read the comment below by Angela Johnson. She summed up the issue very succinctly.

  3. I sympathize with Angela, but that’s reality. If you want to attend a top-tier university, you’ve got to have the grades, the SATs, the extracurricular achievements (or, granted, in rare cases, either rich alum benefactor parents or an unusual sports gifting). And she is correct, barriers to entry are getting higher, and not just at places like Columbia and Georgetown, but at virtually all quality colleges. Heck, even at a mid-level UC school like Santa Barbara, the average acceptance GPA is now 3.97. Technology is not the reason for these higher barriers. It’s simply supply and demand.

    Maybe I’m still missing the point, but I see technology opening many new doors to higher education, not slamming them shut. I understand the drawbacks, as well, but overall it seems a strong net positive for humanity.

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