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An Obvious Question
About Online Education

By Professor Doom

Administration: “We need to have more online courses, since we can offer these across the country and are more convenient to our students.”

Me: “Isn’t our charter as a community college to service, well, our community?”

Administration: “Expansion of our student base will allow us to provide more services here.”

Me: “We’re in a town with a population of 1,200. We have close to 3,000 students taking our classes. If we’re not able to offer enough services to the local community now, maybe we should consider restructuring ourselves to be more efficient.”

Administration: “More students is always better.”

--it’s so hard to argue such unassailable logic. Growth and retention are everything.

In 2006, nearly 20% of college students were taking at least one online course, and the growth rate of online students exceeded that of traditional brick and mortar students , a trend that has not changed. The increase of students in 2011 was the largest to date. It’s not a stretch to believe that online education will continue to expand despite any real consideration of sanity—are there online courses in public speaking or motorcycle repair? You bet, dozens of them, even. Apparently there is no skill that can be learned online just as well as it would be in the real world.

Online courses represent a bloated and easily squeezed cash cow for the accredited institution. Additional overhead is minimal for an already established institution, oversight is minimal, student complaints are generally easier to deal with (the student can easily be too far away to appear in person) and faculty can administer (I’m reluctant to use the word “teach”) several online courses with the same effort as actually teaching a single course. I’d already seen with my own eyes how online courses work.

It isn’t simply 2 year and 4 year degree courses that are offered online, virtually everything is available from high school to Ph. D. degrees, all accredited, much of it accredited as legitimately as can be. It’s natural to question the effectiveness of all this coursework. Before looking at how successful online education is for college, let’s consider a closely regulated education system, the public high school, and compare the evidence for success there when it’s tried online.

Colorado invested vast sums of money into online education for their high school students, and examined the results. Dropout rates of online students were higher, by a factor of four. Money diverted to online courses came from closing “traditional” teacher positions, doubling up on problems when the failing online students returned to their traditional schools. Students leaving the program were further behind in their education than when they started. In short, a disaster1.

A suggested reason for the disaster was the selection method for online students: many students chose online courses as a “last resort” for learning. These weakest students, students already with little self-drive for learning, would definitely have issues when put into an online system where the only way to learn is through self-motivation. These types of students didn’t do well in online coursework, but there’s more to the failure of the system than that. A look at the data showed only a few students were “at risk,” with the range of ability for online students being comparable to a similar number of traditional students.

Perhaps Colorado was a fluke, so I looked at other states. Online charter schools in Ohio, and Virginia likewise have graduation rates far below traditional schools. An online charter high school in Pennsylvania was shut down after a single year, it failed so badly, and online charter schools do worse in general than traditional schools2. More disaster. Again, failures are attributed to marketing/recruiting at-risk students, and that these schools were targeting the vulnerable, but this argument is probably just as valid in these states as in Colorado. Even if true, some colleges likewise target the least academically inclined, and victimize students with little comprehension of what it means to take on a student loan for college, so we should nonetheless expect similar results in college as in high school.

In other words, we should expect disaster, disaster, disaster, in college online courses.

Help. I don’t know how to send you an e-mail.”

--e-mail from a student in my first online course.

Despite our expectation of disaster, a recent comparison of 99 studies by the Department of Education showed that at the college level, online education is probably as successful as a traditional classroom setting3, and many studies show online education to be superior. “Success,” of course, is defined in the usual way—graduation rate, course grades, and other methods that are sometimes a bit suspect as far as determining if any education is going on in the course. It’s positively fascinating that online education is a near total failure for 17 year olds in high school, but very effective for people in college that are 18 years of age or older.

There’s a big difference that makes online high school courses not the same as online college courses, even if both provide considerable latitude for the students to work at their own pace and time. In high school, the students still have to report to some “school” with computer-filled rooms, to perform their course work. Parent require supervision of their children, and so generally that’s how online pre-college schools work.

On the other hand, college students have no supervision in an online course.

This is quintessentially amazing, a striking demarcation in accomplishment. High school students with oversight fail. College students with no oversight do not fail. “18” is more or less the age of adulthood in America, the age of responsibility, and it’s possible that humans simply become dramatically more interested in education at this age. With “age of adulthood” varying so much around the world, however, this seems a weak argument for what is so special at this age that we see the difference in student performance rise so dramatically.

They’re cheating their asses off.”

--Faculty member suggesting a hypothesis for why online college work seems more successful.

Normally I end these essays with a question. The question I could ask at this point is “how is it 18 year olds working alone at home with a credit card seem to do better on tests and essays than closely watched 17 year olds in a school?” but the answer is obvious, as my colleague above suggests. The real question is: how come administrators have never asked themselves that question, or guessed at the answer? Hint: catching cheaters would lead to students failing and thereby reducing growth and retention.

Think about it.

  1. Hubbard, Burt, and Mitchell, Nancy. “Public Schools Also Lose When Online Students Fail.” September 8, 2012. Education Week.

  1. Center for Research on Education Outcomes. “Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania.” April, 2011. State Report_20110404_FINAL.pdf. The chart on page 8 says it all

  1. United States Department of Education. “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” September 2010.





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