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Former U. President Bowen GS ’58 argues online education is “here to stay”

William Bowen lectures on the future of online education and MOOCs
William Bowen lectures on the future of online education and MOOCs

Former University President William G. Bowen GS ’58argued that “online education is here to stay”in a lecture in McCosh 50 on Monday night,saying that universities must work to find solutions to the challenges posed by technological advances.

The national discourse surrounding the growing prevalence of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has become increasingly relevant to the University in recent years, where several professors have adopted Coursera, a massive online education platform that allows professors to offer online courses to students off-campus.

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who has indicated his support for a greater role for online education in the past, acknowledged the cost considerations driving the popularity of MOOCs in a May lecture. Eisgruber also sits on the board of advisers for Coursera. In a recent interview, University Provost David Lee GS ’99 said that he also supported the idea of using online courses to enhance the undergraduate education Princeton offers but did not necessarily consider online education a central aspect of its mission.

Bowen’s latest book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age,”published last year, suggested that initiatives like MOOCs may offer a way to close the gap between wealthier and less wealthy educational institutions.While Bowen said on Monday that more rigorous research is needed to determine the efficacy of online courses, he said he believes that such courses have an immense potential to benefit higher education.

“It would be splendid if the MOOCs ... could be harnessed to address at least some of the all-too-real challenges facing the large number of public universities that educate the vast majority of undergraduates in this country,” he said, citing cuts in government funding and the lack of adequate enrollment in institutions of higher learning.

Calling education an “engine of social mobility,” Bowen said that discussions of higher education must be accompanied by consideration of how online learning will affect less privileged institutions.

“As public support for higher education diminishes,” Bowen said, “students at these institutions are increasingly the ‘have-nots,’” he said, warning that additional budget cuts could encourage state governments to utilize online courses as a way to fund education on the cheap. “It would be a tragedy if new approaches to teaching widened divides between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our society.”

Princeton professors have criticized Coursera in recent years. Professor of sociology Mitchell Duneier, an early proponent of online education, told the Chronicle he stopped teaching his courses through Coursera because he said that online education encouraged state legislatures to curb funding for public institutions.

Some professors have also argued that online education could eclipse in-person learning at numerous universities. Earlier this year, a group of professors from San Jose State University argued in an open letter to Harvard University professor Michael Sandel that “administrators at the CSU [California State University System] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

In response to these claims, Bowen said that it was unlikely that online education would entirely replace traditional methods of learning.

“There is much to be said for an intelligent division of labor … I can envision a world where universities adopt a portfolio approach to education,” he said. “Ideally, students would be encouraged to choose a variety or mix of courses that employ a wide variety of teaching styles.”

This combination of online and in-person courses, he explained, could help students adapt to different methods of learning.

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The lecture, titled “Academia Online: Musings,” was part of the University’s Public Lecture Series.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the position of President William Bowen GS '58 on the relationship between online education and state funding. He believes cost savings made possible by state funding are not the driving force in reducing state funding for education. The 'Prince' regrets the error.