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Whither Online Education?

Posted on January 21st, 2013, by 1 Comment

I fully concur with this very thoughtful (though brief) caution that Lloyd Armstrong has raised:

Many of the traditional nonprofit universities and colleges are jumping into the online business because they see it as a new source of much needed revenue. As a former administrator, I understand the need for new revenues as much as anyone, so I am a fan of increasing revenues. My concern is that in most cases the online initiatives are not being done in a way that incorporates the online education into the educational mission of the institution – it is a financial, not educational advance. As a result, little emphasis is being placed on educational effectiveness in many of the new online programs. I have great fear that when the educational outcomes of many of these new programs are evaluated, they will be shown to be relatively ineffective. This result will

lead many to conclude that online education is intrinsically inferior, when all it will really show is that inferior pedagogy leads to inferior learning. Nonetheless, such a negative, albeit flawed, analysis could be a big setback in the much needed expansion of effective online learning in higher education.

I share Armstrong’s concern, but I think that it is more than just financial concerns which are crowding out educational ones; in some cases,  the proximate cause deals with the desire to maximize prestige or some other intangible measure of institutional success (though, given that these measures–especially prestige-seeking–are keys to new revenues, perhaps even this motive boils down to the financial realm). It’s not just for financial reasons, for example, that Harvard, MIT or other elite institutions are welcoming (to one degree or another) the emerging MOOCs; I suspect at least part of the reason is that these institutions are wanting to build some political capital against further protestations from the public about college cost escalation (if someone complains that Harvard, for example, is out of touch with the public, Harvard can point to edX as its attempt to address the problem). For other less prestigious institutions (take San Jose State as an example), an additional motive for jumping on the MOOC (or even online education more broadly) bandwagon is the fear that they will be doomed if they don’t

get on because the last institution to embrace the rise of online initiatives very well may be left behind and crowded out of the market.

The problem with any of these motives is that they don’t necessarily have much to do (directly, anyway) with the education of students. The danger is that if improved educational outcomes are not the preeminent motive for institutions to join these online education initiatives, the colleges and universities will not take a comprehensive view to online education. Instead, they will try to slap on new technologies to the old  model; if that’s the case, the new technologies, rather than lowering costs and/or improving outcomes will wind up increasing costs and even lowering outcomes. This is exactly the approach that institutions of higher education have taken for centuries and for many technologies: whether it is the blackboard, overhead transparencies, VCR, Powerpoint, or “clickers,” colleges have merely taken these technologies and imposed them on the existing classroom with no fundamental change to the operating model. Of course, given that approach, it should not be any surprise that costs subsequently rose because the new classroom cost is the sum of the old classroom cost plus whatever the cost of the new technology is (which is always a positive number). Compared to a medieval lecture, the cost of the 21st century lecture that includes a powerpoint slide is essentially the real cost of the medieval lecture plus any cost associated with running a powerpoint presentation.

Sometimes the use of these new technologies will positively impact outcomes, but there’s no reason to believe this necessarily must be the case (as an illustration of how new technology can actually lower educational outcomes, my favorite anecdote is that, as several of my own professors told me, with the rise of calculators, student errors were magnified by orders of magnitude, relative to typical errors from the age of the slide rule). But even if the effect on outcomes is positive, it is entirely possible that that gain will be washed out by the loss due to increased costs. In order for higher ed to leverage online education and gain from it, it first has to develop and embrace a new operating model. Otherwise the takeaway from the experiment will be the wrong one and exactly what Armstrong warns: a renewed conviction that “online education is intrinsically inferior.” But the real problem, as I see it, is a confused (or as Armstrong puts it, an “inferior”) pedagogy resulting from a failure to comprehensively consider what a true online model for education really is.

  • pointforward

    I suspect that the author of this article received an online education because he used ‘impact’ as a verb and began two sentences with ‘but’ in the last paragraph alone. I shudder to think what would happen if I edited the rest of this one page essay.