The Benefits of Online Learning?

Can MIT’s new online course really offer all that is needed?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has recently launched a new course, free of fees, of teachers, of supervision and of a structured timetable. All anybody would need to take this Ivy League accredited option is a computer and a topic of interest. The launch occurred alongside the inevitable clichés about the beauty of easy access learning. That in a country where even the most Jack Wills-wearing, hockey playing rah would struggle to pay university fees, MIT is building bridges to a future where everyone will have access to a university education. This new approach may create a world where everyone sits in coffee shops philosophically discussing life or else hacking into governmental programmes; a sort of Sartresque utopia.

However, this is a world where I already act as a quasi-cashier every time I go into Tesco and use the self-checkout tills, only to be told to place items in the bagging area even though I can clearly see that’s exactly where they are. Do I really want to spend more time fighting with electronics doing a job that somebody else is normally paid to do?

I’m frankly not in love with the idea of a free, open course. Take Marks and Spencers at Christmas time. It fills me with endless yuletide joy to wander round the food section sampling different holiday delights, confident in the knowledge that calories do not count if I don’t pay for the food. This means that I will even eat mince pies, entities that normally receive my scorn (they neither contain proper mince nor are they pies, they are tarts). However, if they are free I will happily partake, simply because I can. Extend this, admittedly, rather silly, metaphor to education and suddenly the reason that your friend who had no interest in classes, who didn’t even read the book for English literature A-level, and mocked you for working still scuttled of to some crappy university to study some indiscernible course that guarantees them a job at Burger King becomes clear. It’s also why people fail the first year of university. It’s because university in England was cheap, and because a loan seems like some invisible, intangible entity that helps to make up that murky, scary, avoided concept of the future. Yes, I am very much for the raise in tuition, get over it.

I think education is extremely important and I think it should be accessible. The MIT course I assume is challenging and worthy, and I hope that people make good use of it. However, it rather seems to me to lessen the degree of the people who take four years out of their life, and who pay excessive amounts of money to study at the institution. Education is important, and the truth is that you don’t deserve to receive the highest level if you can’t appreciate that basic concept. Degrees should not be lined up on as if you are an American teen parading your participant’s sashes from beauty pageants. One should be enough; it should be appreciated, valued and treasured. I understand the appeal of the MIT course, but I’m not sure it’s in the ethos of education. After school you should only continue your education if you love learning, because as appealing as a three year suspended reality is, university isn’t for everyone. Education is a liberal concept; some people don’t gain an education from books, they learn by examples and from experiences. This does not make them less intelligent; it is smart to avoid paying tuition fees when alternative educational experiences are more appropriate.

Furthermore, the idea of not having a teacher seems incredibly bizarre. I try and read voraciously and if it is the summer holidays and I’m sat on some beach with sand attacking every crevice I might even try to ponder its narrative and internalise its message. However, I don’t think that makes me worthy of gaining a qualification (as lovely as that would be considering as fellow historians are assiduously applying for law internships, my CV is looking resolutely sparse). Teachers are there to advise, inspire, and question; the great ones remind me why I love learning and those who think it is enough in a lecture to simply read notes off a slide (you know who you are) make me despair. But, they are important. I am nineteen and I don’t know everything, they help make me better as education ultimately should. I’m not convinced that sitting in front of a screen can ever achieve the same effect. Frankly I’m not sure I want it to, learning is a privilege and it should not be automated. It makes it less than it is. Having said this I am a technophobe who once spilt hot chocolate on a brand new laptop and has deleted her Facebook account, so I may just have an irrational hatred of technological progress.

What I am trying to say is that I am not resolutely against the MIT course if for no other reason than that I am not the type to turn up with banners, barricades and placards to protest against anything. And this course is so new that it is too early to see if it could revolutionise the education system. I suppose my point is that I sincerely hope not. Education is about learning from people who know more than you; it’s about debating the topics that interest you and that cannot truly be replicated by any online device, even Wikipedia.

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