If online education is the answer, what’s the question?

As I understand it, the arguments about and within higher education boil down to this conundrum:

College is just a waste of time and money, and neither students, parents, nor taxpayers are getting their money’s worth at traditional brick-and-mortar nonprofit unis.  So let’s spend government money on the kind of education at the kind of institutions that show the lowest return on investment (as measured by alumni employment rates and loan repayment rates):  online education and/or for-profit universities.


Even after drinking a whole bottle of this, it still doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.  **Hic**  Anyone who can explain to me how this makes any sense whatsoever will be the winner of a lovely bottle of Conundrum.  Leave your answers in the comments below, or just pull up a glass and commiserate.

36 thoughts on “If online education is the answer, what’s the question?

  1. Sorry, last night I drank 5 pints of wonderful Midwestern beer to celebrate the end of the semester and a finished and submitted article. The world doesn’t make much sense to me this morning, but you seem to be asking the right questions. Maybe one of your wonderful readers will be able to answer. In the meantime, cheers!


  2. Uh, you forgot an important consideration in your answer. Since we’re switching models, we need to ensure that these state-supported for-profit institutions hire only businessmen to run ’em, design the curricula, teach the classes. And to entice them into the field, we’re going to have to shield them from accountability (via bail-outs for bad decisions) and offer competitive salaries and bonuses delinked from performance (except as calculated using quarterly earnings). It’s a strictly head-count business: how many faux-learners can you process in how quickly. All that counts is the voucher in hand. Once the ‘student’ has handed in a voucher, you hand them a workbook (to be graded via a machine, of course), and on completion of that workbook, you e-mail them a certificate of completion. Gotta run these things as profitable businesses.

    Crap. Hand me that bottle, would you?


  3. I’d be fine with online “education” if what you got at the end was what Belle proposes: a “certificate of completion” rather than a degree. It would signal loud and clear that these are two different things.

    My uni is contemplating a major rollout of an online education initiative. One of the foundational principles is that the education provided will be equal to that in a classroom. If they can figure out a way to do that, my hat is off to them.

    (I note that the uni documents don’t say how, either. They just say that it will happen… and also that they will do it without changing labor practices. And also, that monkeys will fly out of my butt.)


  4. There are two different questions here. The one that is increasingly getting answered is “How do we go through the motions of providing education cheaply and pretending that we care about quality?” Right. That’s a bad thing. I get that, and I’ll happily join the drinking party to decry it.

    But if responsible, smart, people who are committed to educating students for a functioning democracy are asking the question, “how do we make substantive learning available to as many qualified students as possible regardless of their financial resources or location”? then online education ought to be part of the answer. Yes, done badly and on the cheap, online education sucks. But it doesn’t HAVE to be done badly and on the cheap; in fact, done well, there are things it can do better than a bricks and mortar classroom, and for a wider range of students. (I say this as the product of elite private institutions, an R1 adjunct, and a current community college student who has taken some excellent online basic science classes).


  5. You know how everything is much clearer when seen through the bottom of a beer bottle? (Or, depending on the required level of focus correction, a whisky bottle.) Well, then, from that perspective, I see this big billboard and the question is, “Got cheap?”


  6. Historiann:

    While it’s not an answer to the conundrum, I think this is the explanation for its existence: College is too expensive, so online education is supposed to bring the cost down. However, the powers that be can’t admit that the product is inferior or nobody would sign up for it. They also can’t charge less for it than for face-to-face courses because that would implicitly suggest that it was inferior and maybe even undercut their bread and butter. The result? Online education advocates inside the academy and in the for-profit sector are forced to argue that black is white and that freedom is slavery.

    PS You just knew this one was going to bring me out of the woodwork, didn’t you?


  7. Online education is a result of two main forces (there are others). We all complied with “our education system doesn’t work” mantra that is simply wrong. Our colleges are very expensive compared to the cost at other developed countries.

    Our K-12 education has many, particularly in poor neighborhoods, weak spots, but it is fine otherwise. By agreeing to the lie that system is broken we softened the whole educational belly to punches of CEO culture.

    Most developed countries have no private colleges and the country/state/province supports colleges heavily. In our system, outside support is limited and dwindling.

    The CEO culture rules. Online education is cheap. This will be the solution unless there is a revolt, an unlikely event currently.

    The CEOs don’t care if we are on the way to a feudal system and a majority of uneducated population.


  8. Examples–much less evidence–of what online can do “better than bricks and mortar” tend to be one of three things: a) nonexistent b) anecdotal or painfully anecdotal, and c) eerily like leftover stories from an agitprop brainstorming office in Moscow back in 1933. Let me offer a couple of live-grenade examples of the latter: From Andrew Ng and Daphne Kollerer, “the Stanford computer scientists who created Coursera…” [Source: _New York Times_, n.d., but last week]

    “….one student who had been in danger of losing his job at a large telecommunications firm; after he took the online course, he improved so much he was given responsibility for a significant development project…”

    “….a programmer at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan [who] was able to immediately apply machine learning algorithms to the crisis that followed the eathquake and tsunami last year…”

    At least they didn’t roll out the old turkey about the coal miner who was about to be shot until he took the online course and immediately began sending dozens of cartloads of high-quality bituminous up from the failing Siberian mine. But, for a self-proclaimedly “evidence-based” industry, the IPO investors’ rhetoric tends to be as squishy as they probably would imagine the judging standards in a Saturday night haiku contest.

    If this is what’s coming out of Palo Alto, what should we expect from that corrugated tin business development park out on the interstate, or the slapped-together technology “incubator” down in the used warehouse district? I’m all for giving the change-agents and “disrupters” (whether they advocate virtual pedagogies or outcomes-based assessment) their total way. In about fifty years. After they’ve set up a dozen or so Framingham Heart Study-level longitudinal investigations and prove that putting all of this money and public trust and institutional power in their hands is both safe and effective to the public weal. In the meantime, I think us old turf-guarding neanderthals and public-sector roaders are entitled to be as scurrilously-skeptical of the drum-beating as we see fit.

    I’d even take that bottle as an empty!


  9. Scurrilous skepticism is warranted. I have yet to see anything good come out of any for-profit inroads into education. BUT I think we “turf-guarding neanderthals and public-sector roaders” do our cause a disservice when we assume that the problem is online education itself, and not the anti-educational, public-sector-eroding, profit-making purposes to which it gets harnessed. There’s a smart way to offer online education and a stupid way. The stupids are winning. If we who give a damn (and are capable of doing it the smart way) just throw up our hands and say “online education BAD!” we concede a great deal of important turf that we should be guarding.

    I’m in the midst of a career change out of academia, and it’s involved taking online courses. Some of them have been truly reprehensible (of the “read-the-book-and-take-an-online-multiple-choice-test-variety”). Some have been extraordinary (online basic chemistry classes that required writing reading guides to the material, devising experiments, collaborative activities, and other kinds of active learning activities from which I learned and retained a good deal more chemistry than I ever acquired at my elite undergrad institution). Which is painfully anecdotal, I grant, but it changed how I thought about online education (I had initially been highly skeptical). And there are a few online programs out there that have been quietly giving a legitimate education for some time now–I’m thinking particularly of the graduate library science program at the University of Illinois which has capably filled in the gap created by the wholesale closing of library science departments elsewhere.


  10. Someone recently gave me a bottle of that wine in real life. I had never heard of it and it was a little surreal to see it on your blog this afternoon.

    And the wine was, much like on-line ed, not to my taste.


  11. As part of the call to “fix” the provincial budget here in Ontario, one of the provisions regarding higher education was that every student be taking 3/5 of their regular term load via distance education. Trust me, this isn’t a thriller with our students because it means that they have to work much harder, even with an excellent online course, to get their education. They’re begging us to offer more classes on campus but fewer profs means we just can’t. So they’re, perforce, having to enroll in online courses in order to complete their degrees. Not 3/5 yet, but soon. . . .

    The province wants to make these all fully transferable across institutions. Somehow, I have the feeling this means that my proposed correspondence course on the ancient Near East is going to be opted for by hundreds of students from multiple universities – one more reason they can cut back on full-time faculty. *facepalm*


  12. Online education is cheap.

    For whom? Around here, online classes have a special fee that makes them more expensive–to students–than traditional classes. (Some faculty have already figured out ways to game the system, keeping costs lower for students while optimizing content delivery.) The idea, as I understand it, is that students are willing to pay for the convenience. I think this fee does reflect real costs though. There are new tech support needs and online enrollment caps tend to be lower than live action enrollment caps. The economic incentive for the traditional university in online classes (or hybrid classes) comes mainly from the fact that total enrollment can grow without need for more classroom space.

    I do know somebody who developed an online curriculum and then was fired (annual contract not renewed), after which somebody else was hired to apply the materials. I’m not sure there was much cost savings there, however, because the person who created the materials was contingent–and thus cheap–to begin with.


  13. good enough cook makes the point that if we want to offer as much education to as many people possible, that faculty can’t just hide our heads in the sand and avoid online ed.

    If expanding the availability of a college education is a good thing, and I think that it is, then why don’t we do it the old-fashioned way, and make a commitment to building more colleges and universities? Why don’t we demand that these engines of employment and innovation be build and staffed our towns? Just because we *can* put education online doesn’t seem to me a self-evident argument for why we should.

    The reason that for-profit and allegedly non-profit unis want to go online is because of the belief that it is cheap(er) and that you can get something for nothing. The examples that good enough cook presents of some quality online classes are, I would wager, examples in which the online ed is happening with 1) highly motivated self-learners, 2) a significant investment in faculty time and attention, and 3) relatively low student numbers. This is not a cheaper model of education–it may be a model that works just as well in some circumstances, but the things that make it good, when it is good, is that it is at least as resource-intensive as a good F2F class.

    My contention is that the educrats who are busy setting up online ed for the masses couldn’t care less about quality. If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, then it’s perfectly plausible that online ed works very well in particular grad programs. But these arguments end up sounding like the arguments in favor of home schooling: just because it worked for your child/ren doesn’t mean that it’s remotely feasible or desirable for most families.

    Mass education has its problems, to be sure. I sure complain about a lot of them here. But does it follow that just because we have a shiny metal object now that there is something outdated about locascholastic inquiry and locapedagogy? No way.

    Some things just can’t be automated and megaprocessed. It’s as simple as that. Or rather, some things are actually more efficiently done F2F and by real human beings with job security and a decent wage.


  14. We held a Celebration of Life on Friday for a colleague who died unexpectedly two weeks ago. There were numbers of both former and current students at the celebration who spoke eloquently about how he changed the way they saw the world.

    One of my colleagues remarked that there was no way he would have had the impact he did on students’ lives if he had existed only on-line. He changed students’ lives because he met with them every week and exhorted them to think, to read, and to change the way they looked at the world.


  15. There are several conundrums within the conundrum, I think:

    –Students want to save time by taking online classes, but realistically, they really can’t — or at least not as much time as they hope. As good enough cook points out, it’s possible to offer high-quality online courses (I teach writing online, and I believe I do it as well — though somewhat differently — as I do in face to face and hybrid classes). However, as you point out, Historiann, high-quality online courses require both dedicated faculty members who are paid to spend significant time on the course, and learners who also have time to spend on the course, and the discipline to do it. But many of our students are too over-scheduled, over-employed, and generally frazzled to spend the out-of-class time they need to on traditional courses; where we feel justified in assigning the traditional 9-12 hours of prep a week, they probably expect to (and often do) spend more like 2-3 hours a week on homework/prep. When they sign up for online classes, most of them are hoping to somehow shave minutes or even hours off the 2.5 hours plus commute they spend to attend a 3-credit on-campus course. They’re already making too little of an investment of time to get the most out of their college educations, and online education only invites the acceleration of that trend. After all, barring a few fairly unusual circumstances (disabilities that make mobility difficult and/or extremely time consuming; residence in a rural area where driving distances are long but internet access is nevertheless good(!); a need to be home with another person who requires the student’s presence, but not hir regular attention), anyone who has enough flexible time in hir schedule to truly do the work for several online classes (at 12-15 hrs. per 3-credit course) has the time to come to campus.

    –Universities do, indeed, want to save money by offering online classes, but, for all the reasons named above, they can’t, at least not if they want to preserve quality. Essentially, some universities that are investing heavily in online education are trying to do the equivalent of teaching a bunch of classes by putting hundreds or even thousands of students in the football stadium, with a big lecture (or perhaps just everyone sitting there reading hir textbook for a while), then breaking into discussion groups into which a few harried TAs drop in for a few minutes if the students are lucky, then everyone, at the end of 3-8 hours, taking a scantron test — all of this at a time when people are questioning the efficacy of face to face lecture classes. Somehow they’re hoping that if they do it online, it won’t be quite so obvious what’s actually happening.

    –One of the foundational myths underlying administrators’ hopes for online education is that the internet is somehow something more than a delivery system (just as the printed page, and filmstrips/videos, the telephone, and the television — not to mention the postal service — are/were delivery systems). It *is* a pretty amazing delivery system, but it’s only a delivery system. It also allows for human interaction of various kinds, which is key to good education, but it doesn’t make the humans involved any more efficient. If anything, it makes them a bit less so, because professors in online classes end up answering more questions one-on-one rather than in front of the class, where everyone can benefit (in fact, one can argue that email has made this true of face to face classes as well, since the embarrassment/efficiency tradeoff associated with asking questions in class vs. coming to office hours has been eliminated).

    –Online education does not eliminate the need for Ph.D.s who will work for very little money. I’m pretty sure accreditors are not going to accept the principle that a Ph.D. who set up a class 3 years ago, and was subsequently non-rehired in favor of an M.A. or B.A., is actually “teaching” the class; that’s like saying that any class that closely follows a textbook and exercises designed by a Ph.D. is being “taught” by that Ph.D. Nor, I hope, are they going to accept the principle that a single Ph.D. can “teach” thousands at once with the help of T.A.s with less education that the Ph.D., at least nominally, supervises. Of course, they already accept very large lecture classes, so they’re going to have to figure out where to draw in the line in terms of actual supervision, availability to individual students in more than an administrative capacity, participation in regular revision of exercises and tests, etc., etc. My guess is that online-intensive enterprises will solve this particular conundrum in part by creating more Ph.D.s willing to work for peanuts by offering comparatively cheap online Ph.D. programs.

    Ugh! Really, I think the classes I teach online are pretty good, and do offer some advantages to my students in terms of time/place flexibility, and to my university in terms of reducing the need for expensive brick-and-mortar tech classrooms that most students would prefer to occupy only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mon. – Thurs. And I’ll admit that, as an introvert with a 4/4 load, I find having an online component (fully online or hybrid classes) to my semester helps me keep up my energy levels. But yes, there are limits to what online education can accomplish, and, because human labor is involved, it can’t be both good and cheap.


  16. Some things just can’t be automated and megaprocessed. It’s as simple as that. Or rather, some things are actually more efficiently done F2F and by real human beings with job security and a decent wage.

    Amen to this.


  17. To paraphrase the late George Carlin: the corporate interests who run our society want obedient workers, women and men with just enough education to do the menial tasks expected of them, but ignorant enough to be unable to question the system. The for-profit model does a very good job of producing this outcome.


  18. What I hate most about the argument for online education is something that you highlighted in your last post–it serves to (further) institutionalize educational inequality. Present company (good enough cook) excepted, it seems that the words “good for some things” are often code for “good for some people.” I attended a well-known small liberal arts college, paid for with Pell grants, tons of scholarship aid, and loans. No one is suggesting that online classes would be “good” for my alma mater. Why then, are they “good” enough for my cousin at a small state school or my high school friend paying for community college with the GI bill? If this really is the improved education of the future, why aren’t elite schools the target market?

    I’ll tell you why–because everyone, even proponents, knows it isn’t that great. The entire argument is based on the premise that there are two kinds of education for two different markets, and worse, that this divide is a good thing. For some schools, some careers, and some people, transfer of information at minimal cost is sufficient(though obviously not for others!). And that makes me furious.


  19. Has anyone won the bottle of ‘drum yet? I came racing back from a short-term, half day research trip over to the special collections unit at our state flagship uni hoping to find out. “Any sense whatsoever” ought to be a pretty reachable standard for this high-powered crowd sourcing machine. Maybe we can all take an online thimbleful-sized virtual sip–the proverbial and ever popular 54-way tie?

    One of the symbolic elements that I particularly hate about the discourse of on-line pedagogy is how it soon gets brick-and-mortar practitioners calling their own offerings “podium” courses–as if that of itself makes screen-to-screen a legitimate twin. When it got cold in the ancient Mediterranean and some philosophers began meeting with their students inside, did they suddenly find sandal-wearing traditionalist colleagues describing themselves as “vine-and-fig-tree” educators? If nothing else, let’s at least call what we do f2f “tribune” courses, in homage to the National Convention.


  20. The problem is that online Ed can solve/address certain problems – geography, work or family responsibilities, campus space. However, it is being used to address other “problems”, like cost and access. As good enough cook & Contingent Cassandra have suggested, online classes can be well designed, challenging, and effective. To be that,though, they are not cheap.
    Our system has invested money in an online initiative, but the need to pay back loans means that instead of designing a program that will meet our needs, they have to focus on how to make money. When you hear the people working on it, you just wonder when the whole thing will collapse. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck.


  21. Was anybody at the Lafayette future of the SLAC in a Digital Age conference? The twitter feed suggests that even elite SLACs are going to be taking a hard look at on-line, multi-campus collaborations. A certain tri-college community of historians which Historiann and I are both members might have mentioned something about this the last time I was there in March.

    I will say that my elite private school is taking a hard look at multi-campus models for hybrid classes and there are some really interesting things being done on this front both here and elsewhere. I predict the real innovation in on-line classrooms is going to come from the private K-12 sector and then folks will try to scale up from there.

    Given the success my brother’s lawfirm had with suing Kaplan for failing to deliver on their for-profit promises, I suspect that most for profits are going to buried under lawsuits and litigated out of existence for fraud. Bro was shocked not only at the case, but at how easy it was to prove fraud since everybody put what they were knowingly doing in writing a lot.


  22. HA! If only, Western Dave. You may be right that the K-12s will be the engine of real innovation here–from what I’ve heard about online K-12 learning, it needs a lot of innovation that’s actually about education rather than making $$$ for the for-profit company that runs it.

    Susan said it best: “When you hear the people working on it, you just wonder when the whole thing will collapse. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck.”

    How many more years until I can write that genre of my favorite kind of headline around here: “Whoever would have predicted. . . ?”


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  24. This “Coursera” enterprise, out of Stanford, is definitely aiming at the high-end universities, and Berkeley, Michigan, Princeton, and Penn have already signed on. One of my favorite quotes: “Where essays are required, especially in the humanities and social sciences, the system relies on the students themselves to grade their fellow students’ work, in effect turning them into teaching assistants. Dr. Koller said that this would actually improve the learning experience.”

    o.k., I guess if a healthy percentage of your admits starting being tutored at three by unemployed Ph.Ds in order to get into the right pre-school in order to get into the right K-12 prep school in order to get into the right Ivy, they can sort of grade each other. (Although I’d watch out for the sharp elbows to be flying in the lanes and the sticks to be high in the corners). By the time this generation gets old enough to need them, the way things look, they’ll be putting stents into each others’ arteries, so they might as well get started now. But will these peer-graders also be angling for the best desks in the t.a. lounge?

    Or wait, maybe these peer graders will unknowingly be grading “product” sent over by Pearson that has been assigned out here in the provinces. That would put a different twist on the concept of an academic sweat-shop!


  25. It’s shocking–although perhaps not entirely unsurprising–the degree to which these online and reform schemes are drafting on unpaid labor to achieve their “excellence.” Here’s a discussion of a charter school in Muncie, IN, and how it works:

    At Hoosier, four days a week, the queue of small sedans, SUVs, and trucks waiting to drop off students forms a wide circle around the parking lot. The academy leases space in the unused wing of a Catholic school on the city’s south side. Under its “blended” model, children go to their classrooms two days a week for face-to-face instruction. Three days a week, they work at home with a parent or other adult while connected electronically to the high-tech school. Teachers and coaches meet at least once a month to review each child’s progress. “Everybody is on the same page all the time,” Whitehead says.

    Coordination with parents is a given. “It took me a whole school year to see he wasn’t keeping up” in public school, says Jamie Leffel of her second-grader. Frustrated, she too moved him to Hoosier. What he got there highlights where the public schools have gone wrong. Hoosier students receive a passport to the digital age: Everyone who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch is eligible for a free desktop computer and printer, as well as an Internet stipend. Pupils still need to take government-mandated standardized tests, but the academy’s computer-driven metrics allow teachers and parents to track how well the kids are doing in real time. (They record the grade for every assignment, confirm that work is completed on time, and inform teachers that students need special attention when they can’t exceed 80 percent performance after the first few attempts.) It’s a high-tech education for a high-tech world. Parents get a constant stream of e-mails and, therefore, feel more invested. With Hoosier’s approach, “the partnership with the parent and teacher becomes crucial,” says Melissa DeWitt, the academic director of Hoosier Academies, the parent company based in Indianapolis.

    I guess what public schools “got wrong” is the idea that every child is entitled to a quality, free public education, whether or not she has a parent who can devote three days a week tutoring her! What would our public schools look like with THAT kind of parental investment and civic engagement? I guess it’s just easier to pi$$ on the public schools for trying to work with everyone, rather than discriminating against those whose parents don’t have the requisite skills and/or must work for pay all week long.


  26. Tabloid headline in this piece from Middletown, USA:


    How does four days a week in the parking lot, two days a week in the classroom, and three days a week at home add up? Maybe some unauthorized drag racing or truck pulls going on?


  27. Great point, Indyanna: the kids aren’t (mostly) driving themselves to school. So, yeah: 5 days of unpaid adult tutoring and chauffering probably does make for an excellent education! (No $hit!)


  28. On the other hand, I have a traditional classroom but with an open gradebook so when an assignment isn’t done, a parent knows about it and you can bet it gets turned in pronto when the M gets entered (Ms, for missing, get counted as zeros). I was dead set against this at first, but it’s worked out really well. Parents of 9th graders check a lot (once a week), but as kids get older the parents check less (also because the kids have better habits). It’s also cut way down on parent blowback. No more “why did my kid get a C?” because it’s right there. Every freakin’ assignment.

    As for the experimentation in K-12, the interesting stuff isn’t happening in the for-profit sector for the most part. There’s some cool cooperatives that are offering what are basically independent studies opportunities for students by matching faculties with students even if they aren’t on the same campus. Thus if my Environmental History elective doesn’t fill, in the future I might be able to open it up to students at other independent schools who could participate virtually for parts of it, and work independently for other parts. More work for me (sort of), but better than taking a pay cut when I’m down a course.

    There’s some other stuff in the pipeline I’ve only heard rumors about so far, but if it works it will be good. What it won’t be is cheap.


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  31. The key is in your second paragraph, where you speak of return. You misunderstand the purpose both of “online education and/or for profit universities” and the legislation/policy that encourages same: to whit, the return is measured in how much the business makes, not how well the students are taught or how they do as a tool of production once they actually matriculate.

    Those few who DO matriculate.

    It’s all about the money. It always is.


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