The Choices before Us: Online or Bust?


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In broad strokes, online education teaches what you could learn from a book, without any of the subtlety involved in learning. It imparts knowledge, but not a way of thinking. It does not readily permit the formation of learning communities, ones that can critique and prevent people from going way off course. The face-to-face generational transmission of experience and learning is also not the focus of this model – this was what was valued in India as the guru-kula system.

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Recently a clinical professor at New York University wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he argued that since online courses were cheaper than in person learning, distance learning was the way forward for college education.


I see it quite differently. As I will enunciate below I believe that both face-to-face and online education have significant, complementary roles in our educational efforts going forward. What fraction of students should follow one model or the other is very country specific, but in general, a large fraction of people will be fine with a properly configured online experience. This, I believe to be relevant not only for the US but also for the Indian educational system.


By way of context, I got a B.Tech. degree from IIT Madras (IITM) and an Sc.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’ve been an academic for over 30 years – the last 14 years at Columbia University, where I was Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering for six years (2010-2016). Over the last ten years, I have been visiting India at least twice a year, and the last two years I have been a Chevron visiting professor of Chemical Engineering at IITM. So I have familiarity with the educational systems across India and the US.


With these introductory statements, my view is that it is apparent that the American Educational System and that across the world is in a time of serious change. A few background facts are relevant.


  • There is a commonly held perception that education is ubiquitously required: statistic after statistic shows that people, at least in the USA, make significantly more money if they complete their undergraduate degrees and beyond.
  • The cost of US higher education has exploded. An undergraduate degree at an Ivy league institution like mine, Columbia, will cost a family roughly US$300,000. (Columbia is ranked joint #3, with MIT and Yale, in the US for undergraduate education by US News and World report.) To put this number into perspective, consider the fact that only ~1-2% of the US population makes that amount as an annual
  • The COVID epidemic, and the accompanying move into virtual learning (which has now been pushed for a decade through the device of MOOCs), has made online learning a forefront issue.


Unlike in many nations, in the US, almost all universities are almost completely private – even “State” schools frequently get less than 10% of their budgets from the government. So money is a critical player in this discussion. The money lost in the pandemic will likely mean that a significant fraction of educational institutions will go out of business. Those that remain will fragment into two categories, one focused on online education and the other on face-to-face learning. I posit that education needs this division. While the driver for this division in the US is money – the motivation for this split in India is somewhat different because money is not such a prime driver.


As a sweeping statement, with all its caveats, I assert that many people go to school not to learn: they go to get a degree. For this cohort, online education is the ideal solution. It satisfies both parties.  It is cheap(er) for the students, and the institution gets to make money without all the attendant issues of accommodating students into physical spaces (classrooms, dormitories, lunch spaces) especially during a pandemic. There are, of course, issues about quality and testing but these are in the details. Not that these details are trivial – they are critical for the survival of this model, and ones that need to be addressed.


In broad strokes, online education teaches what you could learn from a book, without any of the subtlety involved in learning. It imparts knowledge, but not a way of thinking. It does not readily permit the formation of learning communities, ones that can critique and prevent people from going way off course. The face-to-face generational transmission of experience and learning is also not the focus of this model – this was what was valued in India as the guru-kula system. In its extreme form, unregulated online education could thus fit into and could potentially drive the global move towards anti-intellectualism, as manifest in populist leaders such as Trump, Johnson, or Bolsonaro, whose perspective is that reading a few books (or maybe not even that) puts you on par with an expert who has spent a lifetime thinking about an issue (e.g., Dr. Anthony Fauci). What that train of logic ends up with is with someone asking you to inject yourself with bleach to kill a virus and other such ill-conceived thought. So online education, especially if done badly, is counter-productive and can even be dangerous. However, with these caveats, online education has a significant role to play – it is appropriate for the large fraction of students who want a degree as a means of employment qualification; it is relevant for someone who wants to learn something quickly; for someone who is not necessarily desirous of deep scholarship in a topic but rather needs some level of qualification to complete a task.


The small remaining fraction of students are the ones who will build and then sustain the knowledge infrastructure for the next generation, and beyond. For them, the experience of in-person education is irreplaceable. The growth and sustenance of such thinking communities, which require a depth of knowledge, needs a face-to-face dialogue. These in-person interactions are critical for creating communities which embody learned knowledge, of best practices and what does and doesn’t work; we can and do frequently go to these communities for solutions – think about trying to create a COVID vaccine without tapping into a community of people that has been thinking about anti-viral treatments and vaccines for their lifetimes. Dr Fauci, for example, starting thinking about HIV/AIDS, another viral pandemic, in the early 1980s.


On a personal note, over a three-decade long career, I have collaborated with researchers across the world. My group and I use Skype/Zoom or other distance communication tools towards working and building these collaborations. Our experience teaches that meeting physically with collaborators allows for rapid progress, one that cannot be achieved virtually even if those meetings happen regularly over long time scales. There is something about the focus, the physical/visual cues that an in-person meeting has, that cannot be replicated by virtual learning.


I believe, therefore, that while online education will become more prevalent, there will always be a clear demarcation between these two types of educational modes. Columbia University has experimented with online education but has not had a significant impact in this realm. It is not that we don’t have the expertise to do it. Rather, us and many of our peer schools (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale) have come to realize that for the money we charge, students expect something significant in return – this includes the formation of peer groups that sustain careers. In-person interactions also foster connections between faculty and students. For the students, this has the promise of creating pathways for the best of them to be channeled into streams for advanced degrees and the best jobs. These student groups, in return, put money back into the schools thus sustaining our continuing high prestige. Online education would not allow us to build this brand loyalty, one which we believe is built when people spend time on campus.


Acknowledging these very different educational outcomes and planning for them is critical. Importantly, based on what I have said above, I believe it is unlikely that the same institution will be successful at both models (although experience teaches that they will all try to marry these two approaches). A split in educational objectives, namely a functional goal of getting a job versus that of building a more abstract educational community, often goes hand-in-hand with the implication that the face-to-face group is somehow superior. Such elitist opinions are the source of the current move towards populism, and thus how we address and mitigate the challenge of positively integrating these vastly different approaches into our education mission is a critical question that remains to be addressed.


How does this all port over to the Indian milieu, especially in STEM programs (which I am most familiar with)?


I would argue that most undergraduate science/engineering education in India could easily go online. Even the elite IIT system has always simply been a stamp of approval. It was true when I studied there and it is true now – anecdotally, nearly 90% of all students who go there are not interested in the education. They want a degree. There is a very small fraction of students who are interested in higher learning. I don’t think this should be dealt with pejoratively, however. Students who for example want to go the start-up route should be taught the basics of entrepreneurship, the ability to draw up a business plan etc. Knowledge of these subjects may simply be unnecessary for most students who will go on to get a Ph.D.  I think it is time to take Indian educational institutions and classify them as online educational in focus vs. face-to-face centric. The educational-centric institutions can focus on the pedagogy of virtual teaching, and the associated ideas of proper testing. This involves not only the lectures, but also holding remote office hours where students can get help in solving problems. How lab courses will be dealt with is important – they cannot be all virtual. Do students come to the institutions for a short period of time to participate in lab courses? Do they come in to take exams or does the current process of outsourcing exams in the NPTEL format suffice? The times that different cohorts of students spend on campus could be staggered so that the number of students on campus at any given time is small – infrastructural requirements are thus reduced. In this model it is unclear if these educational institutions must continue to have the ability to have Masters/Ph.D. programs. Faculty in these educational centric institutions do not need to get evaluated on research production – rather, a good teacher should be equally valued as an excellent researcher.


The small number of Ph.D. granting institutions can then be the focus of in-person education and also research activities. Regardless, the common metric should always be excellence – be it in teaching pedagogy or in research. Both educational models thus need to be supported vigorously, but their goals must be seen as very different.


Sanat K. Kumar is the Bykhovsky Professor of Chemical Engineering, Columbia University, New York. Views expressed are personal.


This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.

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Very nice reading