The Many Problems of Online Education

J.M. Anderson

This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus.

One thing we learn from the new Babson report is that the number of students enrolling in online courses continues to grow, and apparently there's no end in sight. In fact, "the number of students taking at least one online course has increased at a rate far in excess of the growth for the overall higher-education student body," according to the report, which is based on responses from over 2500 colleges and universities. Another thing we learn is that most chief academic officers have "a more favorable opinion of the learning outcomes for online education" and rate the learning outcomes for online instruction "as good as or better" than face-to-face instruction--67%, to be precise, up from 57% when this study was first conducted in 2003.

That sounds good, but are chief academic officers--presidents, chancellors and other high-level administrators of colleges and universities--in the best position to know that learning outcomes are "as good as or better" than face-to-face instruction?

When was the last time your typical college president or chancellor set foot in a classroom or taught a class online? And by what criteria are they making such a statement when they also admit in the study that less than one-third of faculty--i.e. those in the trenches who actually teach--"accept the value and legitimacy of online education"--a "perception that has changed little over the last eight years?"

The basis of their claim is "the level of student satisfaction." Really? Is that such a reliable indicator? Students might think that their online courses are just as good as or better than their face-to-face courses, but that doesn't mean that what they think necessarily correlates with reality. Many of my students think that they can read and write--after all, they've gotten As and Bs in high school--but invariably they experience something like shell shock when I begin to show them how they should be reading books and documents or when I give them back their papers. In fact, several recent studies suggest that students perform better in face-to-face classes--see, for example, here, here, here, and here--and that we should be offering more (not fewer) of them. So when 67% of chief academic officers say that online learning outcomes are "as good as or better" than outcomes in face-to-face instruction, it is merely an opinion, an assumption.

It is also self-serving. That's because chief academic officers care primarily about the bottom line. They are rewarded for higher enrollments, higher retention, higher success rates. Online courses are a cheaper, easier, and more efficient way to get and retain more students. For-profit institutions have known this for some time (including Kaplan University, a major sponsor of the Babson survey), which is why they continue to lead the charge for more online courses, according to the study. Not only is online education growing most rapidly in the for-profit sector, for-profit institutions "remain the leader among institutions in including online [instruction] in their strategic plan."

The study also points out that "not all program areas are seeing the same levels of growth." Some have declined, such as education and psychology, and some have gained traction, including engineering and even the liberal arts and humanities. But the vast majority of courses taken and degrees being offered online are not in fields associated with traditional liberal education. They are in skills-based and career-oriented disciplines, such as business, computer and information science, and health and human services. And since for-profit colleges and universities are in the business of selling credentials and degrees, it makes sense that these fields remain robust in the online education market. (A former colleague of mine at the for-profit institution where I worked once shrewdly observed that the only reason for-profits tolerate the social sciences and humanities--"foo-foo majors," the president of the university called them--is so that they can be called universities. They need them for general education requirements and accreditation.)

Don't get me wrong, I do not oppose online education. In principle it is a laudable endeavor because it attempts to make higher education accessible to greater numbers of people--and I am in favor of any medium that encourages curiosity and helps students to learn. This past summer I taught a hybrid class for adult students in an accelerated B.A. program. My students liked the format because it gave them flexibility, not only to learn at their own pace, but to accommodate their busy lives. Not surprisingly, other students agree. Not only do a majority of students prefer online instruction because it gives them "greater flexibility," 80% of the students surveyed by the Babson group said they prefer it to face-to-face instruction because they are better able to "work at their own pace."

Liberal Education Devalued

Nor do I oppose online instruction because it reinforces the notion that higher education is a means to accumulate gobs of information and obtain a degree. Colleges and universities have doing that long before the Internet was invented. And I agree that some subjects--particularly those that are information driven--lend themselves to online instruction better or more readily than others (try teaching someone how to swim or play the cello online). The issue isn't technology, or even online education, but whether online instruction is just as good as or better than face-to-face instruction in furthering the ends of undergraduate--i.e. liberal--education. That's one question the Babson Survey failed to ask.

At its best, liberal education creates personal contact and friendships between students themselves and their teachers, and it provides them with encounters that increase their knowledge, develop their skills, refine their tastes, and expose them to the unfamiliar. But at big schools and small, the trend--whether hiring more adjunct instructors or discouraging faculty from devoting time to their students by forcing them to obsess over research and publications--is to push teachers and students further away from each other and those experiences. I am not blaming online education; it is not the problem. Rather, online education is merely a symptom of a larger trend in higher education and another indication that liberal education has been devalued as a whole. Not only is the kind of personal contact and engagement that students get in face-to face classes at the heart of liberal education--in fact, the Babson Survey reports that academic leaders believe that face-to-face courses are seen as "far superior for student-to-student communications" and "student-to-student interactions"--personal interaction and contact is precisely what undergraduate students need and want.

According to the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, a vast majority said that their education was more meaningful to them when these contacts existed, especially with professors who were not distant figures or only remotely accessible. Among the study's criteria for good teaching were a high quality of interaction with students; the interest that faculty showed in teaching and student development; the extent to which faculty were genuinely interested in teaching; prompt feedback; and the quality of non-classroom interactions between students and faculty. But a majority of students reported that they experienced these practices and conditions only "sometimes" or "occasionally." At small institutions, only 44 percent said these were strong, as compared to a meager 28 percent at larger institutions. In fact, many have used such statistics to prove their point about the superiority of online education. As a student of midwifery said about her online experience on NPR's Talk of the Nation, "I have a whole lot of interaction with my professors, far more so, actually, than I had when I had the walls and roof over me."

Reinforcing Adolescent Behavior

That may be true for her, just as it is for students who feel satisfied in traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, but it is also true that online courses are more likely to reinforce the kind of adolescent behavior that distracts undergraduates from developing intellectual maturity and the habits of thought and mind appropriate to the liberally educated person. The reality that proponents of online education ignore is that it is easier for students to shut off or block out opinions or views that might unsettle them run or contrary to their own while they are hiding behind computer screens. They are more likely to "multi-task" while online--check e-mail, chat with friends, view other web sites, Tweet, listen to music, talk on mobile phones, or even watch TV--when they should be attending to the issue at hand, and actually learn less in the process. As UCLA psychology professor Russell Poldrak discovered, "multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily." Like traditional lectures, online instruction succeeds only with students who are mature and motivated to learn and capable of seeing the Internet and the World Wide Web as tools, not as ends in themselves.

Clearly that's not the case, as I've discussed here before. Students already have access to great books, complete libraries, masterpieces of art, and classical music online, but for the overwhelming majority technology is used and valued for entertainment and social networking. All the information available at their fingertips is worthless if they lack judgment and the ability to use it appropriately. And there is no evidence that online instruction is changing students' behavior. What's worse, the inability of online instructors to control the learning environment makes it almost certain that students will not achieve the full educational experience that traditional liberal education provides, or that they will not learn what their instructors are trying to teach them beyond accumulating information to pass a course and get a degree.

What the rampant growth of online education suggests more than anything else is the continuing commercialization of higher education. Online education is merely another service (like healthcare) in our service-oriented economy; students as consumers are satisfied because it makes "getting an education" convenient (like getting Urgent Care at Wal-Mart); from an economic (not necessarily educational) viewpoint, it shows growth and therefore it must be good; on that basis chief academic officers (like CEOs of companies) can claim success. Apparently this is the prevailing mentality in some quarters in Washington. U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx recently praised for-profit institutions (who lead the online surge, as mentioned above) during a panel discussion, not on the quality of education they are providing their students, but because they are more "efficient" at delivering their service. And therein lies the problem, as Jason Fertig (who teaches business) pointed out in a recent essay: "When professors strive for efficiency, learning decreases."

The real reason online education is attractive and growing is that modern educators in traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are failing to give students an educational experience that they cannot get anywhere else, including online. Colleges and universities, thinking they are too important and too big to fail, have become (like General Motors) oversized and overvalued and they are peddling products that most people need but few people want. But when students are told that they must have a college degree to succeed in today's world, can we blame them if they seek more online courses because they make it easier for them to get credentialed? We may very well end up with more people with degrees in this country than anywhere else in the world by 2020, as President Obama called for. But no one seems to be asking, "What kinds of human beings and citizens will they be?"

J. M. Anderson is dean of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social Sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, and author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

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