The value of an online education
Oliver Scanlan
“You dropped 150,000 US dollars on an education you could have got for 1.50 in late charges at the public library,” said Will. “Yeah, but I will have a degree,” replied the obnoxious Harvard graduate student.
In this bar scene from the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting—a fictitious Hollywood film about a young university cleaner who can outperform MIT professors in advanced maths—we are meant to be rooting for Matt Damon. For the uninitiated, he’s a blue collar prodigy who out-debates an obnoxious Harvard grad student on the intricacies of American history. The obnoxious grad student does, however, make a very good point, and it’s a useful entry point into explaining what exactly you are paying for when you go to university.
You do not pay for teaching, per se, in that you do not pay for someone to stand in front of you and present a load of information. This may come as a bombshell to those who have asked the question, both privately and in the media—when there are so many resources available online anyway, why pay for online teaching?
As Good Will Hunting reminds us, however, as long as public libraries have existed, no one has needed to go to university to “learn stuff.” There is nothing you can read, no “facts” you will be taught at a private university, that you most likely, cannot find out by yourself.
You go to a private university to get a degree. This is not a cynical statement. What is a degree anyway? A degree is a piece of paper from a neutral third party (the university) that is a universal testament and personal reference to the effect that you can do a number of useful things (critical reasoning, write effectively, make an argument, use evidence, carry out independent research tasks etc), and is used by employers to make hiring decisions.
To award a degree, the university must itself satisfy a governing body, that they have established a standardised, rigorous, and cutting-edge course of instruction, something that can only be done by hard-working experts. And that this standardised, rigorous, cutting edge course of instruction delivers a number of goals—”teaching and learning outcomes”—including the development of important skills. To my mind, the two most important ones are critical thinking, and self-reliance.
The importance of being taught how to think critically becomes clear when counterposed against the argument that the internet hosts a substantial quantity of teaching content. And indeed it does have a huge amount of “teaching content”. Much of it contradictory. And prepared by whom? With what qualifications? And how do you choose from them? How to discriminate? “Teaching content” and “free online resources” are broad catch-all terms that cover all manner of sins. To the parents who happen to be reading this, I would delicately point out that unlike public libraries, the internet has no librarians. The benefits of guided independent study are manifold, not least of which is the sharp reduction in the chances of your child blurting out some unfettered bilge in polite company, concerning the hazards of vaccines, for example, or the “fact” that the earth is flat. Structure, painstaking design, questions and feedback, discussion of how to weigh different kinds of evidence in the scales of critical analysis, are all crucial stuff. All part of a degree.
As for self-reliance, the ability of a student to go away and work independently, to solve problems independently, use their own initiative, (in the corporate jargon), “to be a self-starter” seems to be the skill most prized by employers and managers.
To the employers and managers reading this, I ask you the question: when you assign an employee a task, do you prefer those who just go and get it done, or the ones who are constantly coming back to you, asking questions, how to do this, how to do that? Do you want “self-starters”, or people who need “a lot of support”?
University is meant to mark that transition phase between the school and the “real world”, and this “real world” just got a whole lot tougher in 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. As a teacher, our job is not to teach “facts”, our job is to train and coach students to think for themselves, and to be able to work independently. When I am asked questions by my students I almost never give them the answer. I tell them where they can go to find the answer. Because once I do that, they don’t need to ask me any more questions on that particular topic. They can do it for themselves; they have become self-reliant.
Teaching online will not hinder this process of earning a degree. Students will still be following a standardised, rigorous course of instruction, designed by experts. They will still have the guidance of those experts, and materials put together by those experts. They will still be assessed by those experts, and receive feedback from them, according to a common set of standards. They will still be told by those experts to go away and look things up themselves and become self-reliant, thereby earning that piece of paper that vouches for their ability to actually do useful stuff.
Is something lost with remote learning where students facing unusual hardship, or specific and special circumstances, need particular pastoral care? Obviously there is; we are social beings after all. But we are also very good at adaptation and innovation.
So should you drop USD 150,000 on an education you could otherwise get for USD 1.50 in late fees from the local public library?
The answer is “no” if you’re Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting: a fictional prodigy who can outperform MIT professors in advanced maths. For everyone else, in the absence of alternatives, a structured, standardised, cutting edge, guided course of independent learning, all of it put together and delivered by experts, is very much worth it, whether online or not.