Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today

An Online University? Are You Crazy?

by Larry Susskind
April 2013

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind

I wish some of the people who are so excited about the prospect of online college courses being taught by famous faculty members understood a little bit more about what a university education is really supposed to accomplish. The reason students (ought to) go to college is to enhance their capacity to function in the world-at-large once they graduate -- to function as citizens, productive workers, parents and as potential leaders in all walks of life. When colleges do their job, students learn fundamental skills (like how to master a new body of knowledge, express their views effectively in writing and in spoken terms, and how to listen and respond to others with very different values and beliefs). They are also expected to familiarize themselves with a substantial body of knowledge (the Cannon of Western Literature? Great Books? Key Concepts in Science and Math? Great Moments in History? Competing Theories of Social Change and Human Progress? ) that educated people use to make sense of what is going on around them.

You can read about all of these things. There's nothing new about that. And, now we can put these materials and study guides on line. Big deal. And, we can capture the best lecturers in the world presenting these materials and post them online so that people all around the world can listen and watch without having to relocate. We certainly do that with recorded music. But that doesn't a university make! We wouldn't imagine giving someone a degree in music theory or performance because they had listened to long list of records or disks. Any anyone who thinks that open on-line enrollment in a catalogue of college-level classes equals a college degree, is sadly mistaken. And, even if we add computer-graded exams to be sure that the many thousands of people taking these on-line courses have read the material, we will still be nowhere near what it takes to master fundamental skills and use a substantial body of knowledge. Mastery requires real-time interaction with other learners and hands-on coaching by skilled teachers. It requires, trial and error, feedback and reflective discussion. That's why large lecture classes are almost always supplemented by small sections in which students try to use the skills and knowledge they are reading or hearing about in collaboration with other students and teachers.

There are three reasons that on-line universities or efforts to approximate them will fail. First, the most important feedback students need takes the form of questions asked, answered and reconsidered in real-time with a cohort of other learners. A list of Frequently Asked Questions with standards responses pre-prepared by instructors won't give each student the opportunity and responsibility they need to try formulating their own questions as they grapple with the material. Second, students invariably learn more from other students than they do from faculty as they try wrestle with the materials they are trying to learn. This, in turn, requires a safe and supportive environment in which students dare to ask questions (even if they feel foolish revealing what they don't know) or offer tentative answers to questions posed by others. This works best when students meet outside of class on a regular basis, study together and earn each other's trust. They also need one-on-one time with faculty (or teaching assistants) to talk about assigned materials, review work in progress or get feedback that puts exam results in context and makes sure they figure out why they got something wrong. Grades (especially when they are machine-generated) can't do that. Third, when skill development and not just knowledge acquisition is the goal, students need repeated opportunities to try-fail-reflect- and discuss to achieve mastery. Multiple choice, machine-graded exams will never be able to substitute for hands-on faculty coaching and real-time interaction with peer learners. That's why we need smaller not larger classes (or cohorts of students).

My own university (MIT) is poised to invest tens of millions of dollars in on-line education for the world-at-large. There are some ways in which this could be enormously helpful (and could strengthen residential learning), but merely recording and transmitting on line (even for free) the "best" course in various fields is not going to help very much. We tried that in the past by writing text books. People all over the world were encouraged to use the basic economics and physics textbooks developed by MIT faculty. Did that improve and sustain the quality of teaching in other universities? I don't think so. The only way to do that is by enhancing the capacity of teachers in those other places and help them enhance their teaching skills. On-line courses are going to be used as an excuse by college administrators in other parts of the world (and even in the US) to fire faculty members and give students credit for taking on-line courses (offered by MIT and others). That won't strengthen education in the developing world, for example, it will weaken it. On the other hand, we could use MITx to create an on-line learning community for economics or physics faculty members around the world. It would need to be highly interactive. The focus should probably be on how to meet the culturally-defined learning needs of the students each of these faculty members is trying to teach. An on-line forum -- with the capacity to upload teaching demonstrations by one participant that could become the focus for the larger group to review--would aim to share what we know about teaching key concepts or using various teaching methods. Strengthening teaching capacity in as many places as possible ought to be our goal, not reducing or eliminating teaching capacity.

I can imagine giving students a lot more video material to look at before classes begin. I teach city planners about the way certain kinds of resource management challenges can and should be handled. Seeing detailed video accounts prepared by colleagues all over the world, showing how certain problems were handled, would be a wonderful supplement to the readings I assign. But, when students come to my class, I will still pose hypothetical scenarios to see if they can use what they have been viewing and reading. I want each student to be ready to respond to any question another student might ask, or that I might ask. I want to give them collective feedback on their latest assignment. I want them to react to the feedback I provided to them individually on the quiz or exam they recently completed. Then, I will ask them to work in teams or small groups to come up with the best response to still another hypothetical situation I have proposed. Finally, I want to gather them together for a cross-group discussion where one person from each group presents their group's "best advice" to the hypothetical client (using everything they viewed or read before class, as well as the ideas that came up during their small group discussion). This is the only way I can help my students master the material I am presenting.

On-line video and other interactive materials can help students prepare for a class or review what happened in a class, but it can't substitute for the real-time group learning that college education is meant to offer. Similarly, on-line course, if used correctly by qualified faculty members, can supplement what it taught -- especially if it is accompanied by on-line forums that explain to faculty how they can use new materials to teach their particular students. But, online courses can't substitute for residential (i.e. face-to-face, real-time) learning.

There will never be an on-line university that offers more than minimal vocational training -- learning the material, step-by-step, by yourself, at your own pace and taking a machine-graded test. That doesn't come close to generating mastery (i.e. an ability to use concepts and methods in an improvisational way). Mastery can only be achieved through trial-and-error-and-coaching-and-correction-and-question-asking in a continuing group of trusted peer learners.


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.


Email Author

Additional articles by Larry Susskind