EdX, The Great Equalizer

EdX isn’t exactly democratic education for all

The Red Line

As Harvard takes the lead on a bold new plan “to reach out to students of all ages, means, and nations,” using the latest technology and the power of Harvard’s name to distribute knowledge across the globe, I’ve found myself wondering—why am I not more excited about edX?

Its themes of democracy and progress, coupled with the promise of redistribution of power through education, seem exactly the sort of things that a leftist university student like me would swoon over. Yet I still feel slightly uneasy with edX’s promise to reform both Harvard and global education through an online platform. Perhaps this is because of the assumption that everyone in the world wants to access Harvard professors’ knowledge, and perhaps it’s because of Harvard’s supposition that simply making information available online will reach students “of all means.”

I’ve heard many critiques of edX and its attempt to rapidly revolutionize the world of online courseware. Someone more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the edX technology might point out that expanding an online learning platform to encompass more than a dozen universities in less than a year is an unsustainable rate of growth, or that Harvard and other universities need to raise funding and build infrastructure to organize online classes before they can hope to effectively serve one million (if not one billion) students.

But what does it mean that Harvard has sponsored an education platform to disseminate professors’ lectures across the world? Perhaps we should consider the philosophical foundations that have motivated President Faust and other university leaders to spread Harvard scholarship across the globe.

First, making Harvard, MIT, and other university courses available for free or a small charge online may allow tens of thousands of students to access the words of Harvard faculty via their computers. However, this alone will never be a social equalizer—after all, access to regular internet and free time to complete a course is itself a privilege, and the students who seek out and successfully complete courses through edX are likely those who already have the academic discipline engendered by formal education. EdX does not challenge the structures of inequality and power that give people differential access to education based on race, gender, nationality, and class.

But more importantly, a model of education based on learning indirectly from prestigious faculty members is not necessarily democratic, or even beneficial to students. In narrating edX, Faust often shares hopes of bringing Harvard faculty knowledge to bear more effectively on social problems across the globe. Indeed, while Harvard might send one or two students with public health degrees to India to design health interventions in developing areas, HarvardX has opened up courses like “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research” to thousands of students in India who can all learn from the expertise of Harvard faculty. However, although disseminating knowledge from centers of power to developing areas seems an admirable goal, we should think critically about the implications of this in a globalized world. After all, Americans in positions of power have long tried to spread democracy and liberalism through education, with a very poor track record. The idea that public health can be quantified and modeled statistically stems from a neoliberal model of human behavior that may not leave room for the lived experiences of real people. Perhaps quantitative methods in clinical research are exactly what Indian health policymakers need. But perhaps they will obscure the realities of lived experiences, imposing American models of healthcare on people that would be better off without the advice of an academic in Cambridge, Mass.

In my two years as a social sciences concentrator at Harvard, I have taken a quite a few lecture classes and quite a few discussion-based reading seminars. Almost unilaterally, my lectures have allowed me to absorb information and learn my professor’s own analysis; they usually leave little room for critiquing a professor’s methodology or even learning about alternative approaches. On the other hand, my seminars have provided room for me and my classmates to put texts in conversation with each other; we challenge our professors and each other to think more critically about the material we are learning. Certainly, there is a role for lecture-based learning in universities. But if the goal of a liberal arts education is to train students to be better thinkers and to truly address global problems, that education must leave room for rigorous and critical engagement. While I admire edX’s attempts to experiment with integrating new technologies like wikis and online statistical analysis into coursework, I remain convinced that these techniques of learning cannot substitute for small-group face-to-face discussion. EdX’s platform sends the message that learning can simply mean studying the thoughts of big-name Harvard or MIT professors via the internet.

Some might accuse me of being a left-wing Luddite. Others might note that championing “traditional” classroom-based education might put me in an uneasy alliance with socially conservative proponents of classical education. Yet I am convinced that education shouldn't involve simply absorbing information from a lecturer. This is especially true across national boundaries, given a long history of imperialism in which U.S. elites have told an increasingly globalized world that what they thought was best. If Harvard thinks that edX will shift the social order through democratic education, I am afraid that it is fooling itself plus tens of thousands of students.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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