Why the Online-Education Craze Will Leave Many Students Behind

Free classes from elite colleges like Princeton and Harvard have generated excitement, but they could actually widen the learning gap

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You have probably heard some of the hoopla about elite universities offering free online courses through Coursera, a new Silicon Valley start-up founded by Stanford University computer-science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. In just the past few weeks, Coursera has added 12 universities to its lineup, bringing its total to 16, including Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke and Johns Hopkins.

The company’s website says its goal is to “give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few,” and, accordingly, much of the news coverage has focused on how this will democratize learning. Two weeks after Coursera announced its initial round of partnerships, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a plan to invest $60 million in a similar course platform called edX, and then a third company, Udacity, announced that it too would join the fray.

Despite near universal enthusiasm for such projects, it’s important to take a few steps back. First, although the content is free now, it’s unlikely that it will remain that way for long. According to an analysis of one of Coursera’s contracts, both the company and the schools plan to make a profit — they just haven’t figured out the best way to do that yet. But more important, I am concerned that computer-aided instruction will actually widen the gap between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else, instead of close it.

(MORE: Can Computers Replace Teachers?)

This is what has been happening in K-12 public schools. Over the past 10 years, public school districts have invested millions of dollars in various types of online and computer-aided learning and instruction programs, yet few are able to show the educational benefit of their expenditures for a majority of students. Those who benefit most are already well organized and highly motivated. Other students struggle, and may even lose ground.

In terms of learning on the college level, the Department of Education looked at thousands of research studies from 1996 to 2008 and found that in higher education, students rarely learned as much from online courses as they did in traditional classes. In fact, the report found that the biggest benefit of online instruction came from a blended learning environment that combined technology with traditional methods, but warned that the uptick had more to do with the increased amount of individualized instruction students got in that environment, not the presence of technology. For all but the brightest, the more time students spend with traditional instruction, the better they seem to do.

(MORE: Born to Be Bright: Is There a Gene for Learning?)

Supporters of online learning say that all anyone needs to access a great education is a stable Internet connection. But only 35% of households earning less than $25,000 have broadband access to the Internet, compared with 94% of households with income in excess of $100,000. In addition, according to the 2010 Pew Report on Mobile Access, only half of black and Latino homes have Internet connections at all, compared with almost 65% of white households. Perhaps most significant, many blacks and Latinos primarily use their cell phones to access the Internet, a much more expensive and less-than-ideal method for taking part in online education. In short, the explosion of this type of educational instruction, though free now, may leave behind the students who need education the most.

It’s not hard to understand why the chance to watch lectures, pass tests and even get a formal certificate from an elite school would stir excitement. Until now, most students would never have the opportunity to experience any part of what happens on these elite campuses. But as the recently released Pew report on the American Dream makes clear, a four-year college degree is the only type of educational intervention that promotes upward mobility from the lower-middle class. If we really want to democratize education, finding creative ways to realistically open up colleges to different communities will do more to help than a model that, despite its stated intentions, is more beneficial for students who are already wealthy, academically prepared and highly motivated. We ought to make sure that everyone has access to the same opportunities, or we will further widen the opportunity gaps we mean to close.

MORE: Student Loan Debt: Is There Really a Crisis? 

82 comments
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Spellcasters
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umbrarchist
umbrarchist

Couldn't learning have been democratized with a National Recommended Reading List decades ago?  Just allow people to walk in and take tests to get credit hours.  Charge $50 for the test.  They must get at least a C to get credit and higher scores will get B or A.  No refund if they flunk.


Thinking as a Science (1916) by Henry Hazlitt
http://www.scribd.com/doc/104611461/Henry-Hazlitt-Thinking-as-a-Science
http://librivox.org/thinking-as-a-science-by-henry-hazlitt/

The Tyranny of Words (1938) by Stuart Chase
http://www.anxietyculture.com/tyranny.htm
http://archive.org/details/tyrannyofwords00chas
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9H1StY1nU8

The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh From the Lemonade Stand
http://www.exceltip.com/book-1570713960.html
http://www.fool.com/personal-finance/general/2006/10/18/foolish-book-review-quotthe-accounting-gamequot.aspx

Radically Simple Accounting by Madeline Bailey
http://qccomputing.com/radical-accounting-book.htm

Teach Yourself Electricity and Electronics, by Stan Gibilisco
http://www.electronics-tutorials.com/book-reviews/teach-yourself-electricity-and-electronics.htm

With all of the junk books how are people who really want to learn supposed to self educate?  Or do educators have a problem with that?

Meenu Sarangal
Meenu Sarangal

Digital Equalizer is such a step taken by American India Foundation in Govt Schools..kids and teachers both are provided training under it..but the problem is with internet connection..we hope to have wi fi connection soon in our schools :-)

Navleen Kaur
Navleen Kaur

Its about democratizing online education! Girls are already here and they are looking for opportunities! But alas, while the world progresses with iPads and MOOCs, so many of them(hundred thousands) do not even go to school!

Nellie Muller Deutsch
Nellie Muller Deutsch

Tory, the girls are wearing scarfs. The numbers may be higher than you realize.

Tory Glenn
Tory Glenn

How many girls are among those students? Maybe we should be more concerned about equal opportunities in education for girls rather than if they have 'technology' or not.

Neerja Bhatnagar
Neerja Bhatnagar

So true. We need to use other available resources to impart knowledge, where online education is a distant dream or not possible. These areas have no dearth of available human help. Train the teachers and spread education. Be in-line with education if on-line is not possible.

WiZiQ
WiZiQ

Liliana Rodriguez Vega you are right! Things are happening in this direction but how long, do you think, before every child has a access to the world online education? Work towards stitching the disparity is, sadly, minimal!

Liliana Rodriguez Vega
Liliana Rodriguez Vega

There problema is to have access to a computer and an internet connection. That is why there are companies such as Microsoft that are trying to give computers to schools with no resources and in remoted areas.

Sami0214
Sami0214

We take free classes for the pure joy of learning without the pressures and stresses of "formal" education.

As for the lower, socio-economic issues mentioned in this article, poor, inner-city schools qualify for Title I funding and newer/faster/better computer systems than the richest schools in our city.  If people can afford cell phones, they can afford DSL or cable.  It's all about priorities.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Elvis  song Delilah, Cliff, The Young ones, Beetle yesterday

 and all WE HAD DAYS NOW WE TRY TO LIVE

IN THE NIGHTS  Deep within the soul of

the lonely caged bird / Beats the rhythm of a distant forest / Etched upon its

broken heart / The faded memory of flight. -Ginni Bly, poet (b. 1945) The former

director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Reagan administration,

David Stockman, blasts Paul

Ryan's budget plan in a New York Times op-ed. Stockman calls the budget an "empty conservative

sermon" and "fairy tale" and says it will "do nothing to

reverse the nation's economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse." I thank you

Firozali A.Mulla DBA

 

SteveLott
SteveLott

Not much of a forum my posts get zapped. I suppose a well thought out reply was too much for someone.

SteveLott
SteveLott

Will this change the online learning game, yes. Many classes in the post-secondary realm are strictly taught from publisher content with no instructor insight, whether in person or online. I have had fantastic online instructors, and lazy ones that offered no real world experience insight, possibly having none to share. To have the method and quality of how instructors at top schools bring learning to the virtual campus will without question raise the bar. Better quality for all, will likely be the result.

Many students like myself live in rural areas, not an easy or cheap commute to even a community college or state university. Like myself they will find though most online classes for credit come with additional fees over a campus class, the fee and the internet combined are far cheaper than the gas,brakes, and tires. Online learning does not leave more out by cost, it is more inclusive by cost, though yet has room for cost improvement. Any additional method of delivery are potentially a benefit. We should be more concerned with so few scholarships available outside athletic scholarship in many colleges, than channels of academic competition of different delivery method in regards to gap.

You can buy a used laptop cheaper than a running used lawn mower,and put OpenOfffice on it for free. Online education wont widen the gap, or stop folks from falsely claiming it does to sell an inflammatory book or message.

Edgaras Žakevičius
Edgaras Žakevičius

I don't always insult people online, but when I do, those people deserve it according to my moral principals. And the author of this shitty article totally deserves to be called a stupid cunt.

Eric Large
Eric Large

OK so a few things.

1) no one is saying we need to get rid of the traditional method for school.  Coursera is supposed to augment that.  KhanAcademy is also supposed to augment that.

2) Having a bachelors is no longer the way that people gain upward momentum in society.  Why then are there so many graduates who can't get jobs or are working at jobs that don't require an education.  We are in an over-educated society.  We try to teach people to do business rather than having them learn through experience.

3) as college debt continues to mount fewer and fewer people will be able to get a college education. 

Jonathan Lu
Jonathan Lu

Insofar as we're discussing free "education" there's little novelty here. Some colleges already posted lectures on their youtube channels before coursera, and you can sit in on lectures as guests at schools like UPenn anyway. There's a huge gap between education itself and the relationship between higher ed and the job market where degrees and credentials serve as commodities...which is something all of these vague articles on MOOCs have yet to address. With libraries, education has always been "democratic"...

Benjamin Söllner
Benjamin Söllner

I agree, that this form of learning relies on high self-motivation and may not be applicable for people who struggle to motivate themselves and especially for the more important middle-level mass-education where most students might need more guidance. I thus think that this form of education is highly meritocratic, in that it mainly supports those who already have a certain skill set or confidence rather than those who need more care.

But I still see this as an enormous improvement for people who want to improve, could do it (skill-wise) but eventually can't (because lacking the resources) - come on, comparing the barriers of ten thousands of dollars for a degree with the one of "just" having an Internet connection cannot mean that you widen the gap!

And it's also not about "replacing teachers with computers": it's about getting time off for teachers to actually engage in a proper interaction with students instead of holding silly one-man-show lectures. And this more and more is even possible over the Internet, even in real time video.

Moreover, all around the world, local study groups are forming to engage in learning and helping each other out. You might even take this to a level, where you share internet connections together.

I think we should accept that we are moving more and more away from institutional learning towards collaborational learning, in a global world without nation or whatever boundaries. This not only applies to learning, so many institutions are challenged today, as our infrastructure takes over tasks of them (music labels -> iTunes, encyclopedias -> Wikipedia, book stores -> Amazon, journalism -> blogging). Sometimes, there are trade-offs (people in these industries loose jobs etc.) - but often this development supports much more flexible and diverse groups to use the system which were earlier only targeted to a more limited target group.

What's written about a potential fee for content - here the article gets quite biased: it's not mentioned that there are some other ways those companies think about monetization (e.g., giving corporations access to CVs of students for a fee). Of course, the problem I see here is a too narrow focus on subjects too closely related to profitable economy, so that not-so-profitable disciplines, like human sciences or arts, may be left out. I just hope those pioneers consider that and provide a good cross-support of those disciplines.

Femi_Ogunrinde
Femi_Ogunrinde

Globally, I think we should be cautious of stand-alone online courses? They may may promote cognition but I doubt if they would promote psychomotor skills. In Nigeria, the current craze for certificates that do not impart on the individual or society is presently contributing to the present state of societal dysfunction.

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leonard wilkins

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leonard wilkins

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leonard wilkins

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Rebecca Savastio
Rebecca Savastio

Outstanding article! I do not understand why more people aren't talking about this issue. We're moving in such a dangerous direction in society. Despite spending millions on technology and online education in the past ten years, we're worse off than ever! It's shocking that there is very little coverage of this problem. Thanks for a great article.

hdc77494
hdc77494

This is about lowering the delivery costs for higher education, and it obviously meets that requirement.  The idea that lowering the cost of an elite education makes it harder for the middle class to access it is patently false. Just because lower income households choose not to buy broadband doesn't mean they can't. I would agree that improving access to broadband for everyone is a worthy goal, but you'll never convince me these efforts put higher education further out of reach, for anyone.

Dhruv Maheshwari
Dhruv Maheshwari

Great article! Definitely an important discussion right now:

I don't think we really need to worry about companies like Coursera charging people and leaving low-income students in the dust (in this way). As long as Khan Academy and Edx are around, companies like Coursera won't be able to charge people if they want to be competitive. Also, the best model for them would definitely be advertising, not a subscription based service. 

I agree with the fact that online education is not enough. As a college student, the majority of my learning is outside of the classroom - clubs, study groups, office hours, adventures. Putting social stuff aside, people grow largely due to the community around them, and for most low-income people, the community around them is what holds them back. So even if they have access to online learning services, they won't be surrounded by people who are dedicated to learning. That's what college is about (at least in my opinion). I agree, online education is great as a supplement right now, for people who are motivated and have a community of learning; however, in order to really target the people who need it the most, we need to make online education an immersive experience. I think this is what will make the difference between all the Udacities, Courseras, and Khan Academies.

Education-Portal.com
Education-Portal.com

You make some really valid points here. I work for a company that produces free online education, and we do have a path to real, low-cost credit for students who want it. We feel that what we're doing provides a unique value to students because our lessons are and will remain free (we're a for-profit company that is funding this venture through other revenue streams), but there's a population who may never know we exist. This is something I'll be thinking about for a long time.

John Tollison
John Tollison

This makes my brain hurt. The gap The gap The gap. For fucks sake, what do you think the world runs on? It runs on top end brains. Future wars with China, if they happen, and they very well might if growth continues to slow, will be wars of science/technology. This endless obsession with group competition has got to end.

Or we could just open the borders and make everyone in the world equal, 10.5k/yr average global gdp, subtract a couple $k for the motivation you destroy along the way, and watch the world slide back into the malthusian nightmare the west has only very recent managed to take us out of, as the demographic transition slowly reverses due to universal poverty.

This makes my brain hurt.

Kabiru Moh'd Seidu
Kabiru Moh'd Seidu

Online-Education may not be the right solution to bridging the gap between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else, but it has to a great extent shortened the gap. The authors argues that a certificate/degree from an online-course cant get you a job but I am strongly of the opinion that it could equip you with knowledge that can enable start up a business, or something that can earn you a decent living. The fact that I cant get a job with a certificate/degree I earned from an online-course, does not mean that I am not knowledgeable in that course. Its high time we respect the process of knowledge acquisition, and no the end result be it a certificate or a degree. 

David Hepler
David Hepler

I look upon these free online classes as an advanced form of "Head Start."  Individuals have free will.  They can make a choice!  They can either pay for cable T.V. and sit five hours every evening glued in front of the T.V. and flip through the channel dial with a remote in their hand, or pay for an online bandwidth connection and a mouse under their hand.  Education and success is just a click away!  Three cheers for this innovative approach to empowering people who WANT  to reach their full potential!  NO EXCUSES now for not learning!!!  This provides a great opportunity to get familiarized with subjects that are of interest before they have to pay for anything.  People who enroll in these free courses will greatly benefit once they enroll in tuition paid courses for academic credit through a good online or campus based course of higher learning that leads to a degree from an accredited college or university!  

Chiku Misra
Chiku Misra

technology always leaves someone or something behind.  the arrival of the "horseless carriage" heralded the end of horses for public and private transportation.  the invention of the compact disc meant the end of cassettes, which earlier had put an end to 8-tracks.  fingerprinting at the s.a.t. led to less cheating on the s.a.t, though it sure still happened a lot.  you see where i am going with this.  change means progress.  you don't dumb it down to the lowest common denominator.  you basically just forget about the dumb people.  they were not able to hack it and in true darwinian fashion, will be weeded out of humanity.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

If high level courses are free, they are a direct threat to the Educational bureaucrats.   If online is successful -- and open to everyone -- then what need is there for teachers and their unions?   Wither then the power of the socialist system that has seized our schools??  Quick!  Eliminate them while there is still time.

Fred Ossefogva
Fred Ossefogva

The only people to be left behind are the privileged tenured professors such as Ms.  Rooks.  It is OVER for the hyper-expensive residential model of higher ed.   Who else works 30-35 weeks per year, 8-10 hours per week with lifetime job security ?

Bye-bye, profs !

mlowmansc
mlowmansc

I disagree that online education will leave students from low income backgrounds behind. A blended learning model allows students to get more attention, not less, and online learning can facilitate this because, when done right, it allows instructors to work more closely with students who need extra help. Platforms such as GatherEducation are trying to make online learning more accessible to both instructors and students, and I think as online education gains momentum, educators will have even more great platforms to choose from.

flightofabee
flightofabee

Ms. Rooks may want to recheck that study: "The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed BETTER [emphasis added] than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

flightofabee
flightofabee

Ms. Rooks may want to recheck that study: "The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed BETTER [emphasis added] than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

Devrie Paradowski
Devrie Paradowski

Unfortunately, 

While people in the lowest of incomes may not have access to online education, the working poor has virtually no chance of gaining a degree without the flexibility of online education.  We can compare the value of an online education to that of a traditional brick-and-mortar education, but the comparison fails when considering the fact that what is needed for a young 18-24 year old is vastly different than a working adult who may have children.  

There are no real standards that evaluate the learning capabilities nor the applications of traditional schooling vs. online schooling.  Colleges are often rated on their acceptance requirements, graduation rates, and extracurricular amenities.  They aren't rated, really, on the students' abilities to apply mathematical concepts to real world situations, to use scientific reasoning to solve real-world problems, or to use their writing abilities to clearly communicate a thought.  Surely, a school that has high standards for acceptance will have a higher graduation rate than a community college or a university that has very low academic entrance requirements.

One can receive an online education in limited degree fields through both public and private institutions.  Most working adults pursue degrees in areas that closely align with their career or job paths, so the need for sports affiliations, high SAT or ACT scores and philosophical interrogations is not necessary for their goals.  They've already learned a little about the real world through their hands-on experiences. 

People learn in an online environment, and to discount the educational value of online education that primarily serves a population of people who are caught in their income  circle because of family responsibilities and quirky job hours, is to minimize their potential for career growth.  Without online learning, many working adults would never have the ability to get out of their situation through educational advancement.

Bullshitting
Bullshitting

Honestly, I don't think it's wrong for Coursera to charge people for these online courses, as long as the contents are really valuable, just like many people wouldn't mind paying for mobile apps on their iphone. 

Maybe charging a small amount of money (e.g. $10~$20 per course) could even provide some benefits to reduce the student drop-out rate. I signed up for several courses on Coursera, but was never able to complete any of them. It's just too easy to drop out when people think the free course will start again a few months later. If they've paid for it, I am sure it will be a different story. 

So, I think there are many interesting pricing models they should explore. For example, students pay $10 for the course they signed up, and can get it refund, or even receive an extra $10 "scholarship", if they can reach top 20% performance in the final exam. Then they can inject some "extrinsic motivation" into the learning experience.  

Of course, these courses can still provide free version or preview version, just like what we see in App Store...

SteveLott
SteveLott

 I visited your site, and I call you out.  It is a sales lead for school recruiters site, nothing more there is zero noble I found there.  There are no free classes on it, and your boasted [path to real, low-cost credit] is made as unclear as possible so you sell your leads. It may not even exist. You have eleven scholarships for the huge amount of students you boast on your site ["making education accessible to over two million students a month"] ,that a lot of paid leads for eleven lousy scholarships. Yet you troll forums pretending to have low cost credits to get visitors you are not even a school,have no accreditation and where it boldly post on the main pat a free education bullet list a click will take you to a paragraph about eleven scholarship with a link that takes you to miniscule scholarships. As the math professors let's ee here, "2,000,000 x 12  over 11 and pay pay out of $500. What are a students numerical odds of getting that funding that may or may not cover one whole class and books?"

The public sir may be best not knowing you exist, so you may waste their time, while you use them for gain with substantial benefit exchanged. Stop clogging internet searches for students looking for the right school please. you are internet clutter at its worst.

ULURU
ULURU

 Educational Darwinism!

dmercier01
dmercier01

"The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. "  

Retrieved from: http://tbd-consulting.typepad....

bruno
bruno

limited degree fields? I have an MS in telecommunications engineering, an MS in telecommunications managmeent and a DPS in computer science...all of which were earned online and not from Phoenix University either 

bruno
bruno

those with the lowest of incomes are being provided laptops and broadband for free in many areas. Many foreign students dont even have to worry about it