Online learning is the ghetto of higher education


People need to rethink the concept of the digital divide.

In our society, the digital divide doesn’t separate those who have access to computers and those who don’t.

It separates those who are required to use digital devices for learning and those who have the privledge of learning directly from genuine experts.

Soon enough, if my legislature has its way, the wealthy will get to go to real colleges and take classes with real professors. Everybody else is sitting at home on a computer.

Those who are pushing MOOCs and online learning as an alternative to higher education are trying to take my students away from me. The big push is coming from those who stand to gain financially, or from those trying to balance the budget books, so I won’t trust them much on the matter of best educational practices.

Perhaps I’m narcissistic in overvaluing my role in higher education. I think the most important part of my students’ experience is me. I’m involved in their lives in a way that can’t be done online.

The student population on my campus is mostly low-income, working part-time or full-time, first-generation college students, nearly all from groups underrepresented in the sciences. These are, by definition, disadvantaged students. This isn’t an insult, just a fact – the deck is stacked against them based on their background. They have a competitive disadvantage against those with more resources and against those with a pedigree that creates access to fancier opportunities.

This year, a few undergraduates who have worked with me are heading off to great graduate programs. What all of them have in common is that they started working with faculty at my university in the classroom and in the lab, in person. They’ve all told me and my colleagues that there’s no way they would have been able to do what they’ve done without us as a resource and as an influence. I take them at their word.

All the research shows that personal interventions into the lives of disadvantaged students is what leads to their success.

The students that need personal interactions with their professors are the ones that are the most economically disadvantaged.

This is the same group of students who will be the first pushed into online education instead of going to college for real. Why aren’t people more worried about this?

Some are – there is a bunch of concern at Computing Education, such as this post. Overall, though, as usual, the underrepresented students remain, well, underrepresented.

Pointing this fact out doesn’t come without some personal risk at annoying my higherups. My university is deep in the push for online education, and has a mess of wholly online degrees, such as a B.S. in “Applied Studies,” whatever that is.

My university is also known as a place of refuge for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. This is a painful irony that we are at the forefront of the push for online learning. Pushing students out of our labs and onto their laptops.

As a mentor to undergraduates, and an advocate for undergraduate research as a great way to learn, I wonder how this online education trend will affect the ability for students to truly move ahead. I wonder, but I will never want to find out, because I don’t want it to happen.

I just want these students physically in my lab, where I can chat with them personally and help them in ways that I can’t over a computer screen. Please don’t take them away from the university. Please give me the chance to speak with them, listen to them, and show them how to become scientists. Please don’t take away their best chance at success. Don’t make them settle for anything less than what wealthy students are getting at more heavily endowed campuses. Give them what they need to get from college – personal, actual connections with their professors.

You can let the students of privilege take their classes online, if you think online education is just as good. Those students don’t need the face time like the disadvantaged students do. If you don’t like that idea, it’s only because you acknowledge the fact that one truly is lesser than the other.

19 thoughts on “Online learning is the ghetto of higher education

  1. I understand your concern about losing students and I agree that a lot is missing from online learning- like personal interactions and labs. However, I think a blanket statement that online education isn’t as good as going to college is not justified. A lot of students use online education as a stepping stone. Because of various personal circumstances (finances, taking care of a small child, unpredictable work schedules, etc.), online education can actually get some students to go to school that otherwise may not be able to. Additionally, many students use online education as a stepping stone. They take a few online courses to ease themselves back into education and prove to a larger state university that they can pass courses or to help them get through general education requirements before pursuing their major at another institiution.

    I agree that most online courses, but also some community colleges, are more lax about their hiring requirements. You can teach with only a master’s, whereas at most larger institutions, they won’t even look at your CV if you don’t have a phd. On the other hand, most professors at R1 institutions have never had any training in teaching and some may not even see teaching as an important part of their job. They can get hired with almost no experience and are often told not to spend too much time on their teaching because it will take away from their scholarship. Many of the online professors I know are actually postdocs trying to get a little more teaching experience or women phds who stay at home with small children. Some of these people have quite a bit of classroom teaching experience. It’s certainly a challenge to translate effective teaching to the online environment, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

  2. Terry, I couldn’t agree with you more. They’re trying to do this at so many universities now. The latest argument for online classes is that since most of the intro classes are just rote learning and regurgitation, students could do that from home on their time, we could free up all those intro lecturers to teach more specialized courses, and then the students could come to campus for their last two years when they’re supposed to be thinking for themselves. Here’s the stitch. Those who ‘get stuck’ teaching the intro courses are now experimenting with ways to get 300+ classes of students actively engaged, and actively learning. And there are some really great ideas out there. And I’ve had wonderful interactions from the students in my intro lectures. They come to my office, and we chat and they get so much out of those discussions. You take away that face time with your instructor those first two years, now you’re stuck with juniors and seniors in the upper level courses who are incapable of learning or thinking on their own, and it’s worse than trying to teach freshman.

    As an undergrad, I was terrified of speaking in class. If I had had the choice of staying home and ‘going to lecture’ online, I probably would have. I might have learned a few more basic facts, and maybe would have received better grades. What I would have missed out on is the fact throughout the 4 years of being in the big classes where I could remain anonymous, I was also in smaller classes where I got to know and recognize my classmates. Often class participation was part of my grade, and suddenly my paralyzing fear of public speaking was reduced to a tremor-producing fear. Because I essentially forced myself to be in public situations, I found the courage to approach an awesome advisor who encouraged me to join his lab for a Master’s program. There is absolutely no way I would have come this far in my career had I been allowed to hide behind my computer screen to learn facts.

    Science, in particular, is about discussing phenomena, not memorizing facts. When I hear my students ask “But, what was the right answer?” or “Am I doing this the way you want me to?” I get so frustrated. As an instructor, I try to get students to understand that sometimes, the right answer is not nearly as important asking an interesting question. Freshman and sophomores (and most undergrads) hate that response. However, once they get used to it, some of them get a spark of interest and desire to keep exploring. That’s a win. And that’s what I think is a benefit of attending college in person.

  3. College isn’t just about effective teaching and learning. That’s the first wrong step in the push for online education.

    It’s about how people think, work and speak academically. These things don’t translate in online education. It’s also about inspiring students to do more. This is based on personal interactions, which aren’t happening the same way online.

    Look at it this way: would a rich trust-fund kid do an online degree instead of going to, say, Smith or Harvard or Pomona College? No. way. So why is this okay for poorer people?

  4. If you want to use online education to get someone’s foot into the door for higher education, that’s great. But to say that it’s not less than being with a professor is patently absurd. You might be able to take a test just as well at the end and learn just as much content. But that’s only part about what you get out of college.

    If you ask me what I got out of college, learning stuff will be very low on the list. The education we get isn’t just knowledge. It’s wisdom and experience, and long-term exposure to the academic environment.

    The first time our new-ish provost addressed the faculty, he said just the right things to make us happy with his vision. He said he didn’t want to hear any more talk about what you can do with your degree, he wanted to focus on what you do with an education.

    Sure you get a degree and an education online. But don’t even try to make the argument that students going to a real physical college, in the environment of other students and professors in the community, aren’t better off.

    Instead of focusing on how technological magic can bring education to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it, why don’t we actually genuinely reach out to people in person? The only reason we don’t is that it is too expensive. That answer isn’t good enough for me.

  5. Terry,

    My campus’ online forum is currently debating this very topic (Am I the only one that sees the irony there?). Some have argued that online courses may provide more student-instructor contact via direct email correspondence. Others stated that the discussion forums of online classes may elicit responses from students who don’t typically respond in class. Students can take their time to formulate thorough responses. These points are being hailed as the benefits of MOOCs but to me they are precisely the problem. I successfully completed online courses on paper (or on screen I guess..) but the true challenge occurs in the classroom – expressing yourself verbally, networking, debating in true form, being “wrong” then getting it “right”, watching others get it right with you. It’s these small intricacies, always so hard to put into words, that make all parties of the classroom say, “Gee, that was a great class.” Sadly, defenders of the real-life classroom are now forced to try to put these gem moments into words. Some can do it, but I’m not so sure these disadvangaged students know how to yet.

  6. Thanks for the great input, y’all.

    Perhaps the notion that online learning is acceptable has emerged from the “assessment culture,” in which the primary results of classes are “expected learning outcomes.” Have we broken down the college experience too much into its component pieces? Isn’t there more to a curriculum than a list of classes and expected outcomes?

  7. I teach intro biology and a few other things at a community college, and I coteach some online classes. The online students have much lower pass rates, and the students who take online classes as prerequisites are not as well prepared for their later classes. This isn’t universal, and high-level students who are self-motivated are certainly capable of learning a lot from an online class. However, most of my students aren’t in this situation. They’re new to college and new to science and hoping for a good job as a registered nurse so that they can stop working minimum wage in crowded nursing homes with clients who take everything out on their carers. Many of them have full time jobs and kids and English is their second language. For these students, online is not a solution. I’ve seen online students repeat the same class 3 times before they finally get the 2.5 they need to go on.

    I love being able to take a MOOC on a new subject for free and have access to the material even if I can’t keep up with the regular coursework due to my schedule. It’s a great solution for people who already have some background knowledge and want to learn something new on the side, but it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all college experience.

  8. Couldn’t agree more – online courses are great for topping up on a particular area to supplement an on-campus degree.
    Does anyone else remember correspondence courses? I took 2nd-year psych as a correspondence course one summer in undergrad – you bought the textbook, and mailed assignments back to an RA, then travelled to campus (or had some trustworthy individual invigilate) the exam. Basically online courses before there was an “online”. But I gained so much more from my on-campus courses through interaction with the instructor & my peers, and only took this correspondence course because it wouldn’t fit in my course schedule (back in the dark ages when we mailed in course selections ;) )

  9. In all my 7 years at University, not one single Professor took me under their wing and really made me feel mentored or supported. So in my opinion, you are absolutely the most narcissitic person I’ve ever encountered. The online experiences I’ve had have been far more tailored to my needs professionally, and I have learned so much more as a result. How dare you say that online learning is the ghetto of higher education. Shame on you!

      • @Traci, it was probably rash to judge Terry by his posts as the most narcissistic person you have ever encountered. You distracted from a good counter argument that you made and could have developed further.

        @Terry, you could have responded to the argument and taken the high road rather than lash back with a personal attack.

        However, I am curious about your feelings regarding that some online experiences can be very customized and rich. I have both taught online (for 5 years) and in-person (6 years) experiencing some great connections with students in both styles, and am taking a Doctorate online and have some amazing relationships with my fellow students and with my professors. When I look at my in-person education at the MBA level I also had a great experience. What was not as great was my B.Ed. experience, which was impersonal and disconnected except for my practicum work.

        Is it possible that both delivery media have their unique strengths and weaknesses and fit for use?

        As to the financial side, it would have been cheaper for me to get a Doctorate at a physical school than online so finance is not as big as a driver to me.

        • Richard,

          I think I answered your point in the post. I think that the best teaching leads to a strong professional connection between faculty and student and that for students who are underrepresented in the sciences, that a personal connection with faculty is particularly important for their success.

          I don’t engage substantially with those who use language as a club, and I only reluctantly engage with those who do not know me but advise me on how to deal with others. If you saw my response to the earlier commenter as a personal attack, then that says more about you than myself.

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