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Online education calls for note of caution

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From page A8 | February 26, 2013 | Leave Comment

Online courses are hot in higher education these days, and why not?

As our culture relies more and more on the mediation of the Internet for activities that we used to do on paper or face to face – personal correspondence, shopping, banking, games, gambling, romance – the development of courses that students take online seems like an obvious, even inevitable, step.

For-profit online institutions have exploded, but traditional colleges and universities are getting into online education in a big way, as well. In fact, at present about a third of all college students, around 7 million, are taking at least one course online. And that number appears to be growing.

The logic of online courses is powerful. Students like them because of the flexibility and convenience. They don’t have to spend time and money driving to a campus, parking and sitting in a classroom full of strangers. Depending on how the course is set up, working students and students who are parents can log on at anytime from anywhere and keep up with the coursework, even in their pajamas. Many online courses are more or less self-paced.

Some college teachers like online courses, as well. Lectures, quizzes and other elements of a course can be automated. Some teachers believe that online courses require more engagement from the students, who can no longer hide quietly in the back of a crowded classroom. And why wouldn’t professors enjoy sitting at home in their pajamas, as well?

Administrators like online classes, too, maybe more than anyone else. Online courses ordinarily require an electronic infrastructure, but they don’t require campuses and classrooms that have to be heated and cooled and cleaned. Students furnish their own computers and desks.

Furthermore, administrators like the fact that online education is, at least theoretically, extremely scalable. In a course that’s sufficiently modular and automated, a single professor can teach hundreds and even thousands of students at once.

On the other hand, occasionally someone waves a yellow flag. For example, The Chronicle of Higher Education last week published “Online Courses Could Widen Achievement Gaps Among Students,” which reports on the results of a study conducted by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. The center reviewed 500,000 courses taken online by students in community and technical colleges in Washington state.

The short version of the study’s findings is that students who take more online courses are less likely to earn a degree. And some demographic groups – blacks, males, younger students and underachievers – are even less likely than the general population to complete a degree if they take the online route.

Also last week, The New York Times published “The Trouble With Online College,” which cites the Washington state study, as well as others, and cautions against the extensive adoption of online education, particularly for students who are already challenged by traditional college courses.

I’m not a Luddite. The invention of new technologies is the story of civilization. Some technologies, like the flush toilet, improve our lives. Others, like the printing press and the Internet, transform them. But as we consider every new technology, we should resist the temptation to assume that it’s both inevitable and an improvement, particularly when the new technology bears a substantial financial incentive.

So I share The Times’ cautions about committing too much education to the online wilderness.

Every face-to-face college class, for good or ill, produces its own social dynamic that involves how other people look, talk and act, and that experience is enormously educational in its own right. Students benefit from leaving behind the unfocused activities of the typical household and engaging with classmates and professors. Their educations benefit, as well.

Maintaining that rich, healthy dynamic for well-funded students in well-funded schools, while allowing it to wither and disappear for less prosperous schools in the interest of cost effectiveness, would be unfortunate, indeed.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp@delmar.edu. 

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