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Column: Online Classes Offer Inferior Education

For the first time, state legislators in the United States may require their public universities to grant students credit for online courses given by outside providers.

A bill introduced in the California Senate would extend this concession only when a required class is full and not offered online at the college. The legislation, which is expected to be adopted in some form, has been hailed nationally as a leap for massive open online courses — MOOCs, for short.

Advocates pitch MOOCs as classes for the masses, enabling a resident of, say, the Gobi Desert to study nuclear physics. Those who oppose the spread of such an idealistic movement are dismissed as Luddites who wish to restrict higher education to a privileged few. But if altruism is the driver, why were two major purveyors of MOOCs, Coursera Inc. and Udacity Inc., established as for-profit companies? (A third new venture, edX, is a not-for-profit consortium.)

One can’t blame public officials for looking for cheaper modes of instruction. The ventures can also generate revenue for colleges that market their content to the online vendors.

But the U.S. university system is a national crown jewel, one of few remaining advantages we have over our economic competitors. We should carefully consider the quality of the MOOCs before eviscerating this sector for some short-sighted gain. Rather than giving more young Americans a quicker path to a college degree, we might end up dumbing down the value of that piece of paper.

Even a cursory look at typical Web-based courses shows them to be just that — cursory. They tend to teach mere outlines of the subject, lacking the thought-provoking nature of a curriculum delivered in person. In exams, MOOCs often replace probing essays or mathematical analysis with simple, multiple-choice questions.

In fairness, the MOOC companies offer a number of interesting specialty courses, valuable for nonstudents wishing to acquire an overview of the subject matter. Yet caution is required as MOOC leaders seek full university credit for many of their courses.

Consider the University of Pennsylvania calculus course offered through Coursera, one of the first MOOCs approved for college credit by the American Council on Education. The material is attractively presented, but there is only a total of 15 hours of lecture for the entire course — compared with about 45 hours for the regular Penn course. Are the MOOC advocates really claiming the same quality is achieved? And though the homework problems are good, there are far fewer of them than in a traditional class.

Also disturbing are the grade distributions in the Penn MOOC calculus exams: Instead of the usual bell-shaped curve, the grades are skewed far to the right, with the most common scores being perfect or almost so. Although Coursera might interpret this as validating the effectiveness of the MOOC approach, the more likely explanation is that it reflects the lighter demands placed on the students.

Some proponents of online instruction have claimed that it could act as a leveler for the poor, whose high schools have few or no Advanced Placement courses. This may ease liberal guilt, but it’s a cruel hoax. Lacking the academic street smarts of the more privileged students, disadvantaged young people need the face-to-face educational experience even more. For this population, the chances of passing the Advanced Placement calculus exam based on a MOOC are probably very slim.

If online interaction is as good as claimed, why are chief executive officers of MOOC companies going on roadshows to sell their products? Interactive webinars should suffice, shouldn’t they? The roadshows, I was told by an enthusiastic colleague, provide the MOOC CEOs with “real interaction with the faculty.” So professors need “real interaction” with MOOC executives but not with MOOC students?

Yes, placing instructional material online should be encouraged. All of my class materials — homework, exams and full open-source textbooks — are available on the Web. And I am not defending the age-old system of professors writing on the blackboard while students dutifully take notes, which is certainly not my approach. But I teach in person, not impersonally to thousands of unseen, unknown people around the globe.

An old Woody Allen joke sums it up: “I took a course in speed reading, and I finished War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.” If you think that the CliffsNotes version of Leo Tolstoy is quite enough, or that chemistry is little more than memorizing the periodic table, or that economics consists of learning a few acronyms, then MOOCs are for you. I just hope you aren’t a university president.

Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.