LARSON: Don’t let Open Yale Courses close

Unsurprisingly, my math textbook was written by an MIT professor. More surprisingly, the lectures I watch to learn the material are taught by that same professor.

The Internet — and the willingness of elite universities to broadcast classes on it — can profoundly change the college experience and how learning is structured more generally. Besides my math class, another one of my classes has been posted to Open Yale Courses, rendering my physical presence at lecture more of a polite formality than an educational necessity. I’ve even begun listening to two other lectures that I wouldn’t have time to take.

As the News reported (“Open Yale seeks stability,” Jan. 23), the grants that have been funding Open Yale Courses will end next year. Ensuring the continuation and expansion of the program should be an immediate priority for Yale’s administration. A concerted effort to attract donors for a program that offers anyone anywhere a chance at some part of a Yale education should produce results. Even if the donations don’t add up to much, Yale could fund the program directly. Its benefits to current students — not to mention to prospective students, alumni and the outside world — make it worthwhile.

Securing funding for Open Yale Courses, however, is only the most pressing part of a much larger challenge. Yale and its peer institutions around the world need to think creatively about how Open Yale Courses or the broader collection of college courses available online can enhance and redefine our educational landscape. Knee-jerk reactions against online education as a fake or cheap substitute for real learning will only ensure a continued misallocation of resources that could be used for research and education.

To go back to the example of my math course: I get more out of the online MIT lectures than I do out of Yale’s. Part of that is convenience, but, more importantly, I find the MIT lectures to be clearer and better taught. The two courses use similar textbooks written by the same professor and are taught at similar levels of difficulty. Some students may prefer Yale lectures, but the two classes are more similar than they are different.

Our current system offers students flexibility — students can find free, online versions of introductory courses offered at comparable difficulty levels at similar institutions. They can decide whether they learn more from physically attending the course or from learning the same material from a professor who happens to teach elsewhere.

Yet the educational value of choosing between two or five or even 10 versions of the same course isn’t that large, considering that most colleges use similar textbooks to teach their introductory courses. This is especially true of math and science disciplines, in which students must learn a large body of established material before getting to areas of contention, confusion and debate. It is less true for social science or humanities classes, in which disagreement may arise on the first day. But even in the humanities, universities will often offer only one inevitably subjective lecture course on Shakespeare, with the understanding that there already exists a corpus of opinions and scholarly research to which students should be exposed.

It used to be necessary for professors at every college to plow through the same introductory materials. Technology has changed that. Instead of wasting resources duplicating each other’s efforts, why can’t colleges agree to share their large lectures? Colleges could work together to perfect a curriculum for certain classes that cover the same material, allowing the best possible professors to teach introductory lectures — after all, the best person at teaching linear algebra might teach at MIT, while the best teacher in another discipline might teach at Yale or Harvard. Having developed a single core that will prove sufficient for most students, individual universities could devote more resources to tutoring support systems. Teaching assistants could still grade work and hold section. Professors would still be available for office hours.

Having eliminated redundancies, colleges could devote more money, professors and classrooms to seminars, which truly vary from college to college. Students wouldn’t worry as much about conflicts in their schedules and could complete courses at a faster or slower pace than is customary, allowing students who wish to get through prerequisites quickly to do so, while allowing others to take the time they need to learn the material.

Online education, which critics have said alienates students from their education and undermines institutional character, could have the opposite effect. The truly alienating big lecture class could be eliminated, replaced by personalized systems of educational support, expanded seminar offerings and an online collaboration offering the best of several colleges. Instead of detracting from the Yale experience, a move toward a more universal university could enhance it.

Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu.

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