WANG: The future of Yale education

What do Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Stanford have that Yale doesn’t? MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. What are MOOCs? They are what the name suggests: free classes offered over the Internet with open enrollment. These classes are generally taught by professors from elite universities and, in principle, can accommodate an unlimited number of students.

Some might believe Yale already has its own version of MOOCs: Open Yale Courses (OYC). However, the difference between MOOCs and OYC is like the difference between watching “Friday Night Lights” and football on TV with no commentary and one camera angle. Because OYC videos do not take advantage of the online medium, they are, in a word, boring.

Why should Yale be an accomplice in popularizing MOOCs, which are accused of devaluing an elite education? In reality, we need not fear: MOOCs would not water down Yale. After all, the essence of a Yale education isn’t classes. Ask any student and they’ll tell you the best thing about Yale is the people. Classes are either a close second or, depending on the semester, somewhere indiscernibly low on the list.

More importantly, most seminars would not adapt well to the Internet — the system works best for large introductory lectures, where there is little student-teacher interaction. And if high school students can get a taste of what Yale has to offer through MOOCs, then these courses can market Yale in places admissions officers rarely recruit.

Fear from professors is another concern: students won’t go to class if classes are online. This isn’t true. “Game Theory” lectures, for example, are all online, but students consistently show up. Furthermore, is it Yale’s responsibility to make sure students attend lecture? For those who can learn effectively without lecture, more power to them. It is not Yale’s responsibility to ensure students attend class.

However, it is Yale’s responsibility to educate. Education means providing quality resources like good lab facilities for the sciences and travel funding for the humanities. In the age of the Internet, Yale’s mandate to educate should include appropriate online resources. (No, Classesv2 doesn’t count.) When classes have an online component, we learn better. When I lost track of a “Game Theory” lecture, I watched a clip on OYC filmed from a previous year. I wish I could do this for all lectures. Imagine if we had interactive forums where students could post questions and rate others’ posts, with professors answering the top-rated questions. This method of Q-and-A is much more efficient than clarifying for five students after class, another five during office hours and another 20 over email.

The impact of MOOCs on the U.S. and the world could be huge. High schoolers can do an independent study by participating in a course if they max out their high school’s curriculum. More online options can allow serious students to avoid the teachers who don’t teach well. At the college level, smaller universities can offer a greater selection of courses through MOOCs. Internationally, anyone with Internet access benefits from free online courses. We can already tell by the demand from abroad that these courses are valuable because so many have chosen to invest their time in them.

Putting lectures online will also lead to better teaching at Yale. We are at a research institution where the faculty has strong incentive to research and research well. Teach? Not so much. They tell us: don’t hate the player, hate the game. Here is our chance to change the game. The promise of Internet “fame,” as well as a new online format, might incentivize them to experiment with more innovative and engaging teaching methods.

In case my previous points come across as a harsh indictment of the teaching at Yale, I will clarify: I’ve loved most of my classes, and I don’t think the instruction is, on average, awful. My personal experience is that smaller classes are better taught than larger ones, though there are many examples of exceptional yet exceptionally massive lectures. These excellent lectures need to be integrated with appropriate technology for the benefit of both Yale students and the general public.

Mother Yale is always encouraging us to become leaders. When it comes to online education, she should follow her own advice. Our goal should not to keep up with other universities, it should be to surpass them in areas of noble intent. What area could be more appropriate than education, the mission Yale was founded to fulfill? Globally, a more just world demands that free quality education should be available to all. Nationally, online education has the potential to save our schools. Locally in New Haven, technology integration will enhance our own learning experiences.

Rose Wang is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at rose.wang@yale.edu .

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