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.

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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.

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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.

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