Online Education's Net Worth

E-Learning is starting to take off at NYC universities, but are all the bugs worked out?

The pilot program grew out of NYU's Open Education project, which last year began posting videos of lectures on its website and YouTube channel. Conley proposed open courseware as a "marketing strategy" to attract new students and play catch-up to what's happening at other important research universities such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon. "We're a private university in the public service—that's our motto—and this is no-brainer public service."

Conley also pitched the project as part of a long-term business strategy. For paying students, the online lectures and slides could be enhanced with pop-up definitions, interactive quizzes, and links to primary sources. Without having to repeat lectures, professors could restructure classes for small-group meetings and more personalized instruction.

"I teach 'Intro to Sociology'," says Conley. "With 300 students in a class, there's not a whole lot of interaction. Instead of my standing in front of this class twice a week for an hour, I would do a polished video with closed captioning. The captions would have hyperlinks in them, so if I mentioned Marx's four forms of alienation in capitalism, you would have a link to definitions or the original text or supplementary readings." Students wouldn't lose face time with the professor, Conley says, because they would still have to come to class.

Illustration by Kristian Bauthus


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The open courseware is also being translated into Chinese and Arabic to serve communities around NYU's new overseas campuses, says Conley. "Students in Abu Dhabi could be getting this—my lectures—and then we could have a local instructor do the class and have me come in to conduct intensive weeklong discussions."

When the open courseware initiative was announced, the student newspaper Washington Square News asked in an editorial why the university was giving away materials for free that students had "paid dearly" to access. It also wondered whether students would stay "cooped up in their dorm rooms and not actually attend classes." While an op-ed by Conley made clear the intent was to change "how class time [is] spent," the editorial's second question touched on one possible reason for low success rates in online courses elsewhere.

"Online courses require a level of maturity," Jenkins says. "Most students initially try online because they think it's going to be easier, it's going to be more convenient, it's not going to be as time-consuming. And then they discover it's not easier—it's harder, with a lot of reading—so they drop."

Crackdown on cheaters

Another concern is cheating: If students are cooped up in their dorm rooms, how can you tell whether they're doing their own work? The federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires that schools implement procedures to ensure students registered in online offerings are the ones actually doing the work.

Pace University computer scientist Charles Tappert just returned from an online-learning conference where cheating was a major topic of discussion. Every high-tech solution seemed to contain an escape hatch. One school used Web-cams to identify test takers. "But what if someone else feeds the answers to the student at the keyboard?" Tappert asks.

Keystroke-recognition software tracks how long people hold down keys as they type, but it's been most effective in identifying users entering short blocks of text, such as passwords. Tappert is trying to deploy keystroke recognition on longer writing samples to verify student identities, but once again, he says, someone else could be supplying answers to the typing student.

Tappert and his graduate students are now experimenting with "stylometrics," which would detect a student's favored syntax, vocabulary, and even misspellings. "If someone is feeding you the answers, they would use their own words, not yours," Tappert says. By combining stylometrics with keystroke biometrics, schools might be able to identify both the cheater and the person taking the test. But that solution, cautions Tappert, is years away.

While the recession has sent many people back to school for online degrees, longtime prejudices remain. Almost half of hiring managers still view an online degree less favorably than a traditional one, according to a poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Navila Abbas won't take an online course when she enters John Jay College this fall for a degree in forensic psychology. She took a hybrid class in American literature at Kingsborough Community College and found relief in having to attend fewer classes. "But if it pertains to my career, I'd rather have the person-to-person interaction," she says. "I would get more out of it."

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