CMU must inspire improvements in online education

Last week, Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh was invited to the White House along with a group of college presidents selected by President Obama for a workshop on expanding access to university education. One of the major topics in education associated with Carnegie Mellon is online learning, particularly our Open Learning Initiative (OLI), according to a university press release.

The OLI is described on its official website as “a grant-funded group” which aims to “create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education.”

As Carnegie Mellon is considered one of the leaders in online education, it should strive to make significant improvements in online learning.

Despite the potential inherent in online learning, its effectiveness has been brought into question in recent years. For Carnegie Mellon to make the most of its position at the forefront of online learning, it needs to acknowledge the existing flaws of this technology and pursue improvements to the online learning process.

The OLI offers many free, independent learning courses, with the aim of providing students easy access to academic course material and immediate feedback mechanisms. However, Managing Director of Guided Learning Strategies Dr. Frank L. Greenagel states that “developers don’t seem to be aware of how people learn, for they continue to use mostly flawed models,” and that “effective e-learning experiences for complex competencies are rarely scalable.”

In an academic paper titled “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods” Anna Ya Ni of California State University San Bernardino reports that of the classes evaluated “two of the online classes have higher failure rates as compared to face-to-face classes [and] ten percent of students failed in online classes, whereas only 4 percent did in classroom sessions among the six classes under study.”

It also added that “the results indicate that failure rate is consistently higher in online research methods classes no matter who teaches the class: 8 percent of students fail in online class as compared to 3 percent in face-to-face class in general.”

Learning is not limited to information retention and test performance, but also includes improvement as a person. Online education may lack the social interaction and connection with professors and classmates necessary to attain this kind of holistic learning.

If Carnegie Mellon is to be recognized for pioneering a novel kind of education, it needs to acknowledge that education’s shortcomings. Additionally, it needs to be responsible in how it uses and presents new technology, and strive to provide comprehensive improvement.