I'm not opposed to offering free "courses" for people who don't have easy access to a university campus. In fact, I think it's a good thing. But let's make sure we distinguish between public lectures and serious education. In my opinion, if the quality of an online course is equal to the quality of a course given on campus then all that says is that the campus-based course is lousy. We should not refer to these online examples as "university courses." They should be labelled as "public lectures."
I'll have more to say about this later but today I want to return to an issue I raised before. Is it true that the "best" universities also do the best teaching? I have suggested that the answer to this question is probabyy "no" [On the Quality of Online Courses] [Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education?].
Here's an excerpt from yesterday's University of Toronto Bulletin.
“The University of Toronto is extremely pleased to be a part of this exciting project to unlock the possibilities of open access education,” said Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost of the University of Toronto. “We are particularly pleased by Coursera’s focus on the quality of course offerings. They choose excellent universities as partners so this is a terrific opportunity to collaborate with our peers.”She's referring to the universities that are associated with Coursera, a site that advertises itself by claiming, "The World's Best Courses. Online, for Free." How do they know that they are offering the "best" courses? Presumably it's because they are taught by professors from the "best" universities.
Is this a valid assumption? Is there any evidence to support the claim that the best undergraduate education is at the best research universities?
I can't speak for all subjects but I know a little bit about teaching introductory biochemistry and molecular biology. The best teachers seem to be preferentially located at relatively small universities and colleges. That's not surprising since teaching is often their primary job and they pay attention to what should be taught and how to teach it. They are the ones who attend the education conferences, read the education journals, and provide the best advice when I'm working on my textbook. They have kept up-to-date on the basic concepts and principles of modern metabolism, protein structure, enzyme action, and information flow and they know that teaching these concepts accurately is the primary goal. They have lots of experience and they are often the first ones to try, and test, new teaching methods.
Scientists running large active research labs rarely have time to learn about the latest ideas outside their field so when they have to teach an undergraduate course they usually rely on what they, themselves, were taught decades ago.
I have met many of these dedicated teachers from small schools. I am convinced that they do a better job of teaching introductory biochemistry than we do at the University of Toronto. They certainly do a better job than MIT, judging from the very poor quality of their online example of a biochemistry course [see MITOpenCourseware: Glycolysis, Respiration, and Fermentation].
Please, let's stop perpetuating the silly myth that the best researchers at the best research universities are necessarily the best undergraduate teachers. They may be good at teaching highly specialized, advanced undergraduate courses but even that is an assumption, not a fact. (Furthermore, it's the advanced online courses that are least likely to be high quality courses compared to those taught on the campus where students can interact directly with the experts.)