Online learning is the ghetto of higher education

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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.