Reflections About “The Promise of Online Higher Education: Access”

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education web site has a series of essays that serve as a critique of contemporary online learning.  One of the documents from October, 2013 focuses upon claims that online learning provides increased access to higher education.  The author(s) correctly point out that many of us advocate for the benefit of online learning because it provides increased access to students.  In response to that, the authors note that online learning does not serve those who don’t have computers or Internet access.  They further argue that online learning lacks the support services needed for many disadvantaged students to be successful, arguing that online learning us a sub-par education. They end by pointing out that this growth in online learning risks creating a two-tier system in higher education, with the rich getting the traditional college experience and the disadvantaged left with MOOCs.

There are valid points in the essay, but they do not explain away the fact that online learning does indeed increase access to quality higher education.  It is true that people without computers and Internet access will have a hard time participating in an online course. It is also true that many online learning environments do not have the robust support services (although some do, providing dedicated people to work individually with students who need help).  However, in response, I offer ten comments:

Flexibility is Access

Few face-to-face higher education institutions allow single parents working long hours to take classes from 8:00 PM – 11:00 PM each night.  And yet, online courses make that possible. Why not make face-to-face courses more flexible? The statistics seem to indicate the the largest growth in undergraduate education will come from post-traditional students (older than the traditional 18-22 residential college student).  This calls for new models, whether it be a face-to-face or online program.

Support Services

Many face-to-face institutions have robust support services for students who can adjust the rest of their life schedule to attend day-time courses and meetings with advisors or tutors, but those same schools often lack such such services during late evenings and nights when some students are available.

The Digital Divide

The digital divide is mentioned in the essay, and the author(s) suggest that it is mainly about not having access to the technology.  The digital divide is also about not having the digital literacies necessary to use the technology that is available to them.  To lack such literacies puts one at a significant disadvantage in the workplace, not to mention public life in general. There is ample evidence to show that immersive experiences in digital environments can help to bridge this divide. While initial training and appropriate scaffolding of learning experiences are needed for students with limited technological skills, online and blended learning can ultimately help people develop the competence and confidence needed to function in digital age work and life.

Connected Learning

Online learning helps participants to cultivate the skill of connected learning and discovering the power of building a personal learning network. This is a significant affordance for life and work in the digital age.

No Modality Works for Every Student

The paper minimizes the 2010 US DOE meta-analysis indicating the academic benefits of online learning, noting that the most disadvantaged students do better in face-to-face courses than online courses.  That is a good and important point, but it does not argue against the idea that online learning increases access and opportunity to other learners.

Design & Teaching Quality Matters

As with most of these essays (as well as studies that show the benefits of online learning), the author(s) seem to ignore the fact that online learning is not one thing.  There are many types of online learning.  The design of a course and the character, skill and commitment of the instructor has a large impact on the quality of the learning experience.  This is true for face-to-face and online.  It seems like a good time for our conversations and studies about these topics to start taking this critical fact into consideration.

Increased Access Will Likely Mean Decreased Retention

The author(s) note that studies showing much higher drop-out rates in online courses. This is a good point that needs more discussion and attention.  There are ways to design courses and programs to address this current limitation in many online programs and courses, not to mention the provision of good training for instructors and providing support personnel to help with this.  However, when we have increased access to higher education, we often see contexts where students drop out more often. Consider the retention rate comparison between Harvard and a typical community college.  Students coming into college with stronger academic skills, supportive families and communities, and strong preparation for higher education are going to persist better in both online and face-to-face courses. Nonetheless, even when accounting for such factors, students do still tend to drop out of online courses and programs more often.

More Learner Analysis, Please

The author(s) express the need to take into account the distinct needs of specific populations of learners.  For example, they referenced a study indicating that Latino students benefitted from learning contexts with strong social presence and student-instructor interaction.  Now these are important insights. We need more of this to inform our design considerations for all learning contexts, both face-to-face and online.  One of the first steps in  great instructional design is to conduct a learner analysis, which considers many demographic issues as well as learner’s prior knowledge, level of confidence, and much more. However, I suspect that this does not go far enough. What if we had more systems to take into account the individual differences of each learner?  This approach does not inform many course designs and academic plans in online or face-to-face courses right now.

One Style Does Not Fit All: More Options, Please

There seems to be an argument that online learning must meet the needs of all the disadvantaged student populations mentioned in the essay, and yet we don’t hold face-to-face institutions to the same standard.  If you reads this blog, then you know that I am consistently and persistently an advocate of choice when it comes to learners of all ages and backgrounds. Online learning gives people more options. It does not do so at the expense of other options.

We Already Have a Two-Tier System

Near the end of the executive summary, the author(s) write, “We risk creating a system in which the rich on-campus college experience is reserved for the elite while we herd first-generation, low-income students into massive online courses.  And we seem prepared to do this even though the value of these courses is questioned by many of the faculty who teach them, by college administrators, and by employers.” We already have a higher education system in which the elite go to a certain type of school and the rest of go to what they often consider “lesser” institutions.  One could have several degrees from state schools and community colleges and, as a result, have the resume put at the bottom of the pile (if not placed in the trash) when applying for certain jobs.  If we want to address this issue, then why not redesign a system that focuses more upon a person’s accomplishments, skills, knowledge and ability whether they attended Harvard or The University of Phoenix online?



Posted in blog, e-learning, education, education reform, MOOC

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).