Online education – just a pathway to low-quality education?

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Let me lead into today’s story with a Facebook thread:

My friend John & I had this discussion this morning.  Well, it wasn't much of a discussion since this is all we said. But it got me thinking ....
My friend John & I had this discussion this morning. Well, it wasn’t much of a discussion since this is all we said. But it got me thinking ….


John’s personal journey from a pastor’s home to Bob Jones to becoming an actor and an atheist (agnostic? both? probably) and then back into Christianity is just …. crazy.  And awesome.   He also reviews great music albums and great beer selections on his blog. You really can’t go wrong.

But my point here is this:  John is a great student. He’s already far more qualified than nearly anyone in class with him …. he’s read waaaaay more books than I’ll ever get to, he’s well-versed in theater theory and acting techniques, he reads crazy deep theology and philosophy and history books because he thinks that’s fun. We get into arguments all the time.  It should be a sporting event with tickets.  And this guy, of all the people I know, should be able to squeeze an online course for all it’s worth.

But his Facebook post this morning struck a nerve with me.

As long as we define education in terms of knowledge — sheer quantities of facts to be digested, disgorged, arranged, codified, grokked — we are missing the point of true education.

Online courses can deliver facts. Sometimes they can facilitate the development of skills, even – if the online learning community is a robust one, full of self-motivated practitioners who are helping each other reach new levels.

But I’m becoming more convinced that you can’t replicate the Human element of education — the relational angle — apart from deep and rich personal contact.

Perhaps that is my beef with so much of what I see in K-12 and higher ed these days.  The arguments swirling around whether liberal arts colleges should just go off and die the death make their argument on economic and labor metrics.  The Department of Education marches on in its quest to quantify, quantify, quantify.  Colleges cost a lot, and they get a lot of their money from the federal and state governments (financial aid and loans) so the government has a vested interest in finding out whether those colleges are delivering on their promises.

And in a quantified world, the “promise” always boils down to numbers.   How many grads got jobs in their fields? (Never mind that most 22 year olds have no idea what field they’re supposed to be in.) How many students read at such-n-such level?  How many students failed to graduate? How many of the 50% who enrolled in college dropped out before they finished? (never mind the reason)

I’ve done enough education research and classroom teaching to value data in helping us make wise decisions, and obviously something needs to change.  If 100,000 people can sign up for a Stnaford online course on artificial intelligence, then clearly there’s a worldwide demand for good content.

There must be balance — between demanding that mom and dad pay for their dreamer to wander through Bulgaria on an art history vision quest and shoving kids who love the humanities into studying computer programming because those are the only jobs open right now.

Not everyone should go to college; not all pathways to success should be measured in annual income or education levels.

Perhaps everything went wrong when we lost our ability to value the qualitative relationships of teacher and student now replaced by “publish or perish,” or pushed out of K-12 classrooms by the guillotine of standardized testing.

Perhaps online education is just another way to deliver a poor product for less production cost by harnessing underpaid adjuncts.

Perhaps one of you out there can rescue me from a crushing doubt that online education will do anything more than separate the rich and not-rich even further.  You can bet that Harvard will always have a classroom experience.  It’s the community college kid who’s trying to make it through Algebra 2 on a $2,000 state scholarship who will live in the world of the online course where manipulating your way into a good grade is easier to learn than teaching yourself the actual material.

Some clarifications:
– I think graduate level learning may be more adaptable to online delivery, because the students there have already learned how to learn. Undergrads don’t have that advantage.

– Traditional school environments serve only a narrow range of students. I’m not a fan of “let’s all sit here and listen to a lecture” or “read these 12 books, write 4 papers, and call it a class.”  Those methods of education are similarly faulty — but the students who are succeeding in our schools and colleges tend to be students already wired for the traditional classroom.   Thus, some students who would falter in a traditional environment may actually find the online course structure much less intimidating.

If you want to read scholarly words about it, check out this article.  Or if you want to read someone who tells you what a big research study says, try this article….. though I’m not really sold on this one since testing what people know seems like a lousy way to determine whether they’re actually good at anything.


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