Downsides of Virtual Universities

Have you ever woken up early on a weekday morning, stared at your blaring alarm clock through bleary eyes, and wished that you didn’t have to go to school?  You think to yourself, “I wish I could just take classes online, but an online degree pales in comparison to a degree from a reputed university.”

Thanks to the pioneering work of one Sebastian Thrun, the day may soon come when one can obtain a degree from an online institution that bears just as much weight — if not more — than one from a “physical” university.

In an article by New York Times writer Bill Keller, Sebastian Thrun’s innovative ideas are examined and discussed in full.  Thrun, a professor at Stanford University, offers a free online class titled “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” as a sort of experiment in online education. Students who take this course are required to take all the same tests and quizzes, and if they pass, they are awarded with a “statement of accomplishment” instead of Stanford credit.

According to Thrun, he looks forward to the birth of a virtual university where, instead of going to a physical classroom, students can stream their teachers’ lectures from the Internet. Every aspect of a traditional university class would be provided online, and Thrun claims that online education of a quality on par with that of a physical university could be offered for “1 to 2 percent of the cost”.

John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, was described as being a little more cautious about the idea of an entirely virtual university.  He encourages Thrun’s smaller steps (such as his offering of a free online class) and is excited by the possibilities that economically efficient, educationally competitive education provides. He is especially excited by the opportunities this kind of education would provide for things like reaching out to potential students who lack the resources necessary to attend expensive universities. Hennessy, however, puts too much stock in the unique experience of walking around a physical campus to be completely devoted to the virtual university’s cause.

This brings us to the real question: “If you could earn a reputable degree without ever needing to step a single foot onto a college campus, would you do it?”

In my opinion, online schooling has its perks, but the experience of living and learning on a college campus just can’t be beat. I know what I’m talking about; I’ve taken online classes before. Back when I lived in Las Vegas, and I faced a 45-minute drive between my house and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus, online classes seemed like a blessing sent from above. But ever since I moved to Irvine, my eyes have been opened to the true campus experience.

There is no other way to attend college. The sheer potential for new experiences and new relationships is astounding.  I have met some of my best friends here, and I have been graced with memories that will last me a lifetime. Sure, there’s a dark side to life on a college campus, just as there is a dark side to everything, but in my personal experience, the good has far outweighed the bad.

Of course, education through a virtual university has some perks of its own. For those who are shy or socially awkward, online classes without a classroom must seem like a no-brainer.  But even if you’re a social butterfly, you can’t deny that online education could be a pretty awesome thing.

Imagine: you never have to wake up early for school, you can listen to a lecture in your pajamas, and you can steel yourself against the midterm jitters in the comfort of your own home. And with all these tuition hikes, the possibility of quality education for a fraction of the cost should be almost enough to sell any starving college student on the idea.

As things are now, this is some pretty revolutionary talk, and with technology progressing as fast as it is, this new species of education could be waiting just over the horizon. In the future, online schooling may very well lose its stigma and become the preferred method of education. And who’s to say that this new brand of education couldn’t extend past the world of the universities and into the lesser realms of kindergarten through 12th grade?

Until that day comes (if it ever does), I’m going to count my blessings and take the time to smell the roses in Aldrich Park every once in a while.

Spencer Grimes is a fourth-year English major. He can be reached at sgrimes@uci.edu.