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? 

103 comments
LMC_UK
LMC_UK

"Those who benefit most are already well organized and highly motivated. Other students struggle, and may even lose ground." This really is a huge problem. Atleast in face to face courses like the ones at http://www.lmcuk.com, it offers actual engagement and interaction.

You have to have a lot of self discipline which is not common in teenagers to not get distracted, have other priorates or just quite simply stay engaged. 

This is one of the problems that can't really be erected easily and it will be interesting to see what courses will offer to try and keep engagement and interaction as high as face to face training.

sahananitesh
sahananitesh

Online education definitely benefits students! It provides convenience and flexibility. The flexibility of online degree programs enable students to keep working while pursuing academic! Thanks for the share! http://www.eduvercity.com/

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Spellcasters
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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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.