Can the Ivy League go online?

Online universities, even elite ones, lack the face-to-face interaction that makes college valuable.

Cassandra Sundaram

Imagine spending four years going to college and getting your degree without ever having to meet and work with new people or engage with professors and teachers face to face. Imagine your entire time at the University of Minnesota condensed in to four years developing a close relationship with your computer screen.

Ben Nelson, a former Silicon Valley CEO, is starting the Minerva Project — a for-profit online university that is intended to rival the quality and academic rigor of Ivy League schools. Benchmark Capital gave Nelson $25 million in seed money to begin developing this online university in the next two years. Supporters of the Minerva Project claim that students will be able to experience the quality of a first-rate education without the skyrocketing cost of tuition in private and public universities throughout the nation.

I’m skeptical of the true quality of education that an all-online college can provide. Though backers of the project are excited and adamant about getting students engaged with “weekly lectures recorded by big-name professors” and the offering of only upper-level courses, as Reuters reported recently, there are still so many opportunities and experiences that are lost when you only have to interact with your computer.

I can understand the draw of online classes and technical colleges; they are convenient, relatively low-cost ways to get certain specific, valuable skill sets. But they don’t provide the college experience, which is an entirely different kind of eye-opening education. Attending a school of 50,000, we know what it’s like to work with people we don’t know semester after semester. We know that if we want to make the most out of our education, we have to utilize the resources available to us — resources that simply don’t exist on the Web, as wide of a world as it may be.

From student groups like the people-watching and skydiving clubs to a wide variety of pre-professional clubs, the University forces us to engage ourselves, our academic interests and our talents in ways that are often outside our majors or coursework. Even if you aren’t in one of these groups, you can sense their presence on campus and take part in the unique and vibrant campus life they provide. This is part of our educational experience that could never be reproduced in a virtual world. Human interaction is one of the most valuable assets to our learning and contributions to society; teamwork and cooperation are skills whose value cannot be underestimated — skills which online classes and colleges cannot adequately evaluate, no matter how rigorous or prestigious they intend to be. 

Despite its lauded novelties in terms of restructuring and financial rebalancing of higher education in the Minerva Project, the estimated cost for tuition at this online “private” school is still rather loftily vague. The same Reuters article reported that tuition would be under $20,000 annually — perhaps a steal for those who would otherwise be considering enrollment at an Ivy League school, but $20,000 is still a lot of money. It’s a lot of money for an education that by its very nature won’t be able to give its students the best shot at success.

I wish cost didn’t have to be an issue for students deciding where to invest in their education, but it is and will always be. And the investment of capital going in to the Minerva Project is, sadly, substantially larger than the quality of educational output that will come out the other end. You can’t just throw money at something and expect it to exude excellence; there is no substitute for human interaction, no surrogate for collaboration. Education is an experience, not a blueprint of webpages.

 

Cassandra Sundaram welcomes comments at [email protected]