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What superstorm Sandy taught me about the failures of online learning (+video)

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That better way has to be negotiated, however. It has to incorporate students’ own opinions, and it has to begin with the place students are at when they enter a course.

A class meeting or one-on-one conference lets a teacher deal with all of these issues. The teacher and student get to see one another’s faces, get to know whether a lesson is pleasurable or tedious, get to figure out how far to push an issue.

Email falls short in all these departments, and online courses with their mechanistic reliance on chat rooms, standardized assignments, and PowerPoint makes matters even worse in their fast-food approach to learning.

At a time when colleges and universities are competing to see which can win the rankings wars and which can fund as many foreign campuses as possible, it is clear why online earning has such appeal. At its heart is a winner-take-all psychology. Get the best lecturer money can buy, hire a group of anonymous, poorly paid assistants (who cares if they even have Ph.D.s) to mark online papers, and you have a moneymaker that eliminates the need for low teacher-student ratios as well as dorms and deans.

Harvard and MIT, which are offering edX, and Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Michigan, and Berkeley, which are offering Coursera (all for free), are giving online learning respectability, even as they cater to the students on their own campuses. But for these elite schools, online learning is just another way to push their brand and thus make more money. Even when they offer large lecture courses to hundreds of their own students, they offer them through a professor who is physically present and can take questions.

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