Great prediction, Carnac: a brief history of the future of online education

carnacthemagnificentOne of the great things about blogging for the better part of a decade is that you can hold people accountable for the silly things they once said, or wrote, and presumably believed.

Do you remember 2010?  Like yesterday?  Here’s columnist Froma Harrop on September 21, 2010:

Bill Gates recently predicted: “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

It’s the fall semester of 2015:  are we there yet?  What does Professor Pushbutton have to say about all of this?  How ’bout them learning machines, y’all?  

I took the p!ss out of Harrop five years ago when she first wrote about the so-called “high cost of higher ed” so the Online Microsoft Fairy  will make it so that you can send your kid up to college in hir room with headphones and a Kindle, so I’m not here to bother her.  I’m here to laugh at Bill Gates, who’s rumored now to be sending a daughter (his eldest) to Stanford University, not at the University of Your Guest Bedroom, Khan Academy, YouTube U., or even Arizona State Online.

Color me unsurprised, to say the least.  Watch what elites do, not what they say, especially when it comes to education.  More seriously, I haven’t hosted a conversation about online education for a few years now, since back when I was getting all of those invitations to share my opinions at conferences and the like.  What does the future look like to you?

From my perspective, online is here to stay but it’s far from as “disruptive” as some had promised (or hoped, or hyped.)  Just as public libraries and university correspondence courses didn’t magically create successive generations of self-educated autodidacts, so online education and the availability of free MOOCs and TED talks hasn’t either.

Most of my students have taken a few online classes.  They serve a need, but at this point, they’re precisely no one’s idea of an ideal way to teach or learn.  If a face-to-face class opened up that would meet student needs at a time and place they could get to, they’d take it, and if online proffies would be offered a living wage teaching in F2F classrooms, they’d jump too.

As we learned with retail over the internet, bricks-and-mortar stores had a number of built-in advantages that allowed them to build their presence online more slowly and outlast the fly-by-night, online only competition.  (Except for Amazon.   Amazon ate the lunches of all of those big-box dominant book stores and media empires we loved to hate in the 1990s, such as Borders, Tower Records, and Virgin Megastores, but they’re not putting the Gap, Old Navy, J. Crew, Target, Sears, WalMart, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, or even those old mall favorites Chess King or Spencer’s Gifts out of business.)  Good-bye,; hello PetCo.

The bricks-and-mortar universities have successfully colonized online education, probably for the better in terms of the education for the students, and only for the worse in terms of the work environment for the faculty who teach there, both online and in face-to-face classes.

We learned this from the retail example, too:  online is awesome from the perspective of consumers, and potentially catastrophic from the perspective of laborers:  If Amazon can sell what you’re selling for less, you’ll either have to take a pay cut or hang up your spurs.

25 thoughts on “Great prediction, Carnac: a brief history of the future of online education

  1. I share your motto. The moment I read that Malia Obama is considering U of Phoenix, I’ll believe that online education offers the same quality as f2f. (But she has visited a PUBLIC university. Berkeley, of course, but it’s still PUBLIC. And that’s news!)


  2. I completely agree with this.
    “From my perspective, online is here to stay but it’s far from as “disruptive” as some had promised (or hoped, or hyped.) Just as public libraries and university correspondence courses didn’t magically create successive generations of self-educated autodidacts, so online education and the availability of free MOOCs and TED talks hasn’t either.”

    But from my perspective you’ve missed the mark here.
    “Most of my students have taken a few online classes. They serve a need, but at this point, they’re precisely no one’s idea of an ideal way to teach or learn. If a face-to-face class opened up that would meet student needs at a time and place they could get to, they’d take it, and if online proffies would be offered a living wage teaching in F2F classrooms, they’d jump too.”

    I know many students AND faculty that prefer online courses and blended/hybrid courses over traditional lectures. Even if all your qualifiers (if this and that) are met. And increasingly there isn’t space or time to teach everything face to face.

    The students at the elite universities and at an increasing number of state schools and SLAC’s are buying an experience as well as an education. They are connected but not exactly the same thing.


    • Thanks for your comments, Jeff. Where we stand is based mostly on where we sit, so it’s interesting to hear about so many fans of online ed, both students and faculty. I only hear about how they’re not preferred, but then, who am I asking? The students who have taken the time and trouble to enroll in a F2F class with me, so we ALL have an interest in believing that F2F is better!


  3. Historiann,

    Of course, the best lectures in the world ARE available online. The problem is that the listening to lectures does not constitute an education as much as people like Bill Gates would like it to be.

    The more serious problem is that people like Bill gates actually have the power to redefine what education means no matter how much we tell them otherwise. So my worry these days is that no matter how much we snark, these kinds of changes will occur anyway and pretty soon we’ll look up and we won’t have any students left. Think what happens when your students can transfer in credits seamlessly from Baa Ram U Global…on second thought, that’s too scary so close to Halloween.

    Do you remember my daughter, a Bah Ram U. senior now? I get reports on what her online classes are like there and more than a few are in fact better than the face-to-face offerings. [If I ran the world, I would outlaw clickers…but then again I seem to you saying the same thing a few years back.] But it’s the online classes of all kinds that make her schedule bearable.

    Despite our employee tuition discount, I can only cover her tuition and so much of her expenses. She got a job because she actually wants to buy nice things every once in a while – like a car so that she can visit home more often. Do you have any idea what computerized scheduling has done to working in America? It’s appalling, but the online classes make it manageable. The more the state raises tuition, the more our students will have to work. The more our students have to work, the more they need the kind of flexibility that online classes can provide.

    Yes, it stinks that rich people never have to make this sacrifice. That’s why I’m now trying to make online classes better. Online history classes certainly need all the help they can get. I covered a lot of this here:

    if you didn’t see it. BTW, this doesn’t mean I’m selling out. I’m on a panel next week at an online education conference at Stanford arguing for faculty prerogatives in online education against two administrators running the online systems of two entire states. I’m afraid I no longer have the luxury of being against everything, so I’m trying to figure out what exactly I can fight for.


    • I admire your efforts to make online ed better, Jonathan. You live what you preach & know what you’re talking about.

      I hate the vicious cycle you describe that has entrapped your daughter. Aren’t Baa Ram U. courses more expensive, rather than less expensive? So that’s part of the churn, too. I also don’t doubt that some online are preferable to some F2F courses. We’ve all seen both kinds done poorly, and both kinds done well.

      As you know all too well, the promise of educating more with fewer resources is just a fond wish. It’s the scalability thing: education can’t scale infinitely, or I would argue, very far at all, whether online or F2F.


      • All Baa Ram U students have to pay a technology fee, which is pretty high. However, I believe that applies to all kinds of technologies (not just online classes) and a lot of your colleagues use technology in face-to-face settings (like I said, some better than others). There’s also differential tuition fees, which is the way that some departments survive. Music is particularly bad for those, but I do understand that concert hall rental can be expensive.

        A lot of the fly-by-night online operators charge less for their courses to justify their existence, but most regular universities still see online courses as a cash cow even though they are more expensive to produce. Whether that’s still true after the next economic crisis is an interesting question.


      • I wonder about the “cash cow” hopes too. Ultimately, ed can’t be scaled all that much. However, when you take people’s money who drop out don’t finish courses or get any credit–well, that money is as green as anyone else’s. (The astronomical dropout rate of online courses makes me very cynical.)


  4. If I could teach high-schoolers and their parents (or returning adults, for that matter) to ask one question of both online and brick-and-mortar offerings, it would be:

    “Is this option going to provide me with an education? Or just a degree?”


  5. I work in nursing education, specifically with nurses who are RNs with associate degrees who are basically being forced to get a bachelors to continue working and or get promoted. They only want online or hybrid classes because they are working full time and many are also moms. I don’t know if they are really learning a broad critical thinking perspective from the online Arts and Sciences classes, which is what is supposed to be the benefit of having the bachelors. I know we try really hard, and that the prep going into an online offering is huge and time consuming even though the profs teaching online classes get paid a quarter of what the f2f profs get. We do have some professors who love it, because they can travel while teaching and work from anywhere, but they are retired f2f teachers, or also working full time nurses and moms as well. There is a difference in nursing, though, in that we have a professor and Phd shortage, because it is so much more lucrative to work as a nurse.


    • Does online ed pay only 1/4 of what the F2F professors are getting for their teaching, or is the extra money in part compensation for the administrative work and research that F2F professors are also expected to do? If so, it’s not fair to say that the teaching alone is compensated at only 25%.

      If that’s true, then it’s an outrage, and anyone who accepts a 75% pay cut is a sucker or completely nuts.

      Several people here in this thread teach online and F2F classes are are tenure-stream faculty with research and administrative responsibilities. I respect these folks for stepping up and teaching online and not just shuffling off that responsibility onto adjunct faculty, because it strikes me that from an administrator’s perspective, having adjunct faculty entirely off-campus and teaching online from anywhere around the world is the perfect solution to the “problem” of faculty and the possibility of organizing faculty unions. Adjunctifying F2F faculty was part of the answer, but moving faculty labor entirely off-campus is the ideal way to avoid any problems with labor.

      How cool is it to convince faculty that teaching online is so much more “convenient” for them?


      • At my school, tenured faculty only teach Phd courses and we only have 5-10 total. We have loads of clinical faculty that are non tenured but full time. Each class, committee, administrative responsibilities have an FTE associated with them and if it adds up to 100 percent you are full time. Most of our clinical professors are shared with the medical center, with .8 FTE in the school and .2 in the medical center. The fully online courses are worth a quarter of the FTE of the in person and hybrid classes.


  6. I agree with many of the critiques of MOOCs, but I am teaching an online class this semester, and it’s going quite well. The seminar immediately reached its cap of 25 when registration began in the spring, in a department where we struggle to meet our required enrollment of 10 (for upper-levels) on a regular basis. And as a tiny humanities department in a rural public university we are rather desperate to show our value. I was afraid it would be full of 20-year old slackers who wanted to avoid work, but 2/3 of my students are non traditional, and most live 1-3 hours away from our campus. They do the work and we’ve had some good conversations in the discussion forum, though it’s not as good as meeting together in an actual classroom.
    My main concern is the 2-3 students who are having trouble understanding the material. I think they are not great readers, and my only way of explaining things is in writing, so it’s tricky. But I’ve come up with extra reading guides for the primary source materials (making them optional so that better students don’t have to do them). And the quizzes I use for the secondary source seem to be working pretty well, and are not too time-consuming for the students. I did a survey a couple of weeks ago and some students complained about the workload, but otherwise things seem to be okay.
    It requires a lot of work on my part, but once I have all these reading guides and quizzes set up, it will be a lot better. Still, it won’t be the automated class the MOOC fans hope for; I spend a lot of time responding to student writing (at least twice a week), and the discussion board will need to be monitored. But in the end it might take me a bit less time than my face to face classes, and provide a pretty good alternative for people who can’t drive an hour or more for a class.


    • 25 students in a “seminar?” That’s **crazy**! At least you’re getting paid the same, according to your comment below, but I’d still say you’re being overworked. As you describe it, your course clearly fills a need.


      • Seminar is probably the wrong word – I use it for all our upper-level classes (all capped at 25, though they often don’t get there). Our lower division courses are capped at 45. So it’s not too bad. We have a 3/3, though if the department (and university) survives budget cuts, it’ll probably be 4/3 or 4/4 soon.

        Yes, it’s surprised me how much of a need there is for these courses, though they are feeling more like adult ed than regular college classes. It’s great to have 12-15 of my 22 students so self-motivated and eager to chat about what we’re learning. And the conversation is more like what you find on a good blog than what occurs in the classroom; good for informed students, less so for others. This week I neglected to provide a particularly relevant piece of background information on a primary source text; in the classroom, I would have remembered to present it right away, or someone would have asked about it, but instead, I got the same question about it in half of the reading analysis.


  7. I find it distressing that my institution’s registration system has no way to filter for only “on-campus” courses. You can filter to see online courses but not vice versa. Every year we see students who unknowingly sign up for distance ed courses when they think it’s just some weirdly unscheduled face-to-face section.

    I teach a course online, one which I developed. It’s an interesting proposition. Definitely not the same as the on-campus class – I wouldn’t want this to be the only way that I teach this subject (ancient Near East) going forward. It can be useful and more accessible but when more than 60% of my students are local, not very vital to have it online, in any case!


  8. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your experiences and opinions. I really appreciate hearing from those of you who teach or have taught online, as I never have (and likely never will.)

    I have been thinking a great deal about this lately in part because I’m wondering about the role of faculty on my campus right now. Right now, we’re undergoing some massive construction projects that seem mostly to involve tearing up every proximate parking lot within a 1/2 mile radius of my building, so it’s a massive pain in the butt just to get to campus–either you fight construction near my building and the library and student center, or park 3/4 mi. away and walk in. So I think a lot of my colleagues and students right now are wondering if our university even wants us to bother coming to campus to meet and talk in our F2F classes and to hold office hours and go to faculty meetings, because they’re sure making it extremely irritating and time-consuming.

    I can absolutely see the allure of NOT commuting, NOT polluting, and working from home. OTOH, I also know that too much screen time–maybe because it’s so absorbing, maybe because I have no self-control–is bad for me: my state of mind and outlook on life. (And I say this as a blogger who chooses to spend several hours a week EXTRA in front of a screen communicating with you all!) Maybe some people are cut out for that, but I surely am not.


  9. All I know is that the day looms when somebody comes up with a plan for on-line pre-K and on-line K, on the ground that every toddler has an iPad anyway by this time, and they’re visual learners, and on and on and on, and they’ll probably try to fix it politically so that school districts have to pay for this, a la charter schools. The RNs, up-thread, seem to me like they would be best adapted of anyone I’ve heard about to actually learn in a virtual format, based on academic experience to the associate level, professional discipline, and the accelerating digitization of medical record systems. I’ve never doubted that people who have learned how to learn could function effectively mediated by way of the internet and a screen. That description doesn’t apply to the vast majority of undergraduates, however. I do a majority of my research “online,” as it were. Having a group of first year Ph.D students on campus for one year and one year only, then kicking them out of the nest to scatter to their respective archives, with the requirement to “meet” once a week for a three hour intensive “seminar” seems like a perfectly appropriate way to utilize this technology. But just as a way to run up the “seat” numbers for some platform-aggregating executive over in Hoodumpler Hall doesn’t seem so perfect or appropriate.


  10. Chiming in a bit late to say I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said upthread: online and hybrid courses (both of which I teach regularly) can work, at least in certain circumstances, e.g. the very hands-on, activity/assignment-focused, relative small — 20-25-student — writing in the disciplines course that makes up the great majority of my 4/4 load. And no, nobody should be teaching 4 of such sections at once, but an online section does count/pay the same as an online one, for everybody from 2/2 tenure-track professors to part-time contingents/adjuncts. Online should probably count a bit more, or the class caps should be a bit lower, since it’s more work, but that’s an argument for another day. I’d say that hybrid theoretically offers the best of both possible worlds, but in practice, at least with the sort of required course I teach, it becomes a recipe for students thinking they can squeeze in one more class under the circumstances Jonathan describes, and then missing too many classes and/or letting it slip out of sight/mind on the days it doesn’t meet. That’s a recipe for failing the course, and fail they do, in larger numbers than in face to face classes. Students who take online classes (like those who sign up for 7:30 a.m. classes, which tend to go better than 9 a.m. ones for similar reasons) increasingly know what they’re getting into in terms of workload and self-discipline (at least once they’ve taken and passed, or not passed, at least one online class). If anything, that’s going to limit the demand for online classes going forward, as students become more realistic about what works for them, and make their choices accordingly (which is exactly what administrators want, except when it gets in the way of their desire for there to be an eager pool of geographically dispersed paying customers just waiting for their institution to offer the right online program).

    And yes, there’s a major problem with online programs being divorced from the traditional department/faculty governance structure, and so becoming a means for administrators to pursue pet projects that draw resources from traditional classes. That’s the strongest argument I can think of for established faculty (especially established tenured faculty) to become knowledgeable enough about online teaching (perhaps by doing it, but also by talking to those who do it, and/or experimenting with hybrid models enough to be knowledgeable) to be able to put forward well-thought-out critiques of, and criteria for, online courses, and to absolutely insist that they be involved with the creation and ongoing assessment of online courses that fall within their purvue (or would, if some deanlet hadn’t created a new “interdisciplinary” program — I’m all for interdisciplinary programs, but they can be a way of executing end runs around traditional departments). With such oversight, I’m pretty sure the online trend will become self-limiting, for all of the reasons mentioned above, combined with the fact that good online teaching is quite expensive (because it doesn’t really scale in the way many of its supporters hoped/predicted; and like all means of teaching it needs to be updated/revised constantly, which means paying local teachers decently and working time for such activities into their schedules or paying through the nose to outside learning-materials publishers; and it requires significant technological infrastructure and support staff to keep same running). My fear is that the balance of power between administration and faculty has already tipped to the degree that faculty may no longer have the power to impose limits that guarantee quality (and/or that administrators may be able to leverage existing splits between tenure-track and contingent faculty to create lower-quality online programs).


  11. This is a bit off the subject, but given the experience that CC and Jonathan Rees and af have, I’ve been asked to serve on the search committee for the person who will head “Academic Computing and Emerging Technologies” As I understand that, it includes both instructional technology, research computing (including DH), as well as ???. I’m thinking about what I want in this person, and I think I want someone with a Ph.D., and an understanding of pedagogy — not just online pedagogy. Anything else?


    • I’d look first for substantial undergraduate, including gen ed level, teaching experience, both f2f and online (you’d be surprised how many instructional technologists have little to no teaching experience, or have only taught other aspiring grad-level instructional technologists and/or faculty), and at least an M.A. (Ph.D. preferred) in a traditional discipline (not instructional technology, though maybe computing/engineering; I guess that depends on the nature of the job, and of the online programs the person will be overseeing/creating; if there’s a heavy STEM focus, then someone with a STEM degree but/and appreciation of the humanities and social sciences might make sense). I’m not sure you can or should say “no Ed.D.s”; you might well find someone good with a traditional M.A. and a relevant Ed.D. (among other things, that could be a sane detour for someone to take in light of the current market for Ph.D.s in many traditional fields). But you probably want to avoid anyone who’s taken the M.A/Ph.D. in higher ed route directly to administration, without at least showing some interest, and getting some experience, in the traditional teaching/research track. An active (If perhaps not speedy) research program, preferably discipline- as well as pedagogy-focused, also seems like a desirable thing. You might have to give on some or all of the above, however, since it sounds like a very broad mandate, so much so that one has to assume the hiree would mostly administer others’ work (but maybe that’s an incorrect assumption). Still, that would point to a fairly senior person, and a senior person should have had time to amass fairly broad teaching *and* research experience before turning to administration.

      Also, obviously, rule out anyone who claims that doing DH will somehow bring money to the university. There are already far too many programs and administrators fighting over that funding pool (if it even exists anymore).


  12. Anything online, or video “distance” education, is recorded. Where is the protection of privacy? A student can make an inartful or maybe ignorant comment online or in a video discussion, and now it’s recorded for all time, open to that student being punished and pilloried by the Internet.

    Twice as true for the professor.


    • Since everyone has phones now, covert recording can go on in the classroom at any time. That to me is more worrisome. The online courses are only open to the students, and only during the semester itself, so it shouldn’t be accessible later. Of course someone could copy and paste a statement.
      I do worry about saying something inaccurate, but I can always go back and fix it, at least.


  13. Pingback: We called it: MOOCs are dead as uni disruptors, but follow the money | Historiann

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