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Faculty Coalition: Online Courses Leading to 'Sub-Prime' Education

While online instruction — including MOOCs — is frequently peddled as a way to expand access and deliver learning without barriers to students, the format is ill-suited to help those who could most benefit from a college education. Those are the parting thoughts from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a coalition of faculty groups, in its last of three reports examining the potential fallout from higher ed's seemingly unstoppable rush to adopt online forms of education.

Previous Reports in the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education Series

Part 1: "Faculty Coalition: It's Time to Examine MOOC and Online Ed Profit Motives"

Part 2: "Faculty Coalition: Forget About Cost Savings with Online Programs"

In the latest report, "The 'Promises' of Online Higher Education: Access," the coalition laid out its argument that even as the population of "underserved" students grows, access to the support services these students need to succeed in college are diminishing. Simultaneously, the report stated, they're increasingly being shunted into online programs for which they're particularly ill-suited.

The report's authors listed several problems with using online courses, especially in situations where the programs are intended to bring up students' skills in foundational subjects:

  • The digital divide is real; lower income families, people with less education, those with disabilities or living rurally, and certain populations of color — blacks and Hispanics — are far less likely to have access to newer computing equipment or the broadband necessary for accessing video-intensive lessons;
  • Online courses that rely on peer or machine grading can't provide the constructive feedback needed by "underprepared students," nor are those students necessarily in a position to be able to turn around and share constructive feedback of their own; and
  • Assurances by education technology organizations that they will be able to apply data analytics in continuously improving their products to better help those students who struggle are empty promises. These are the same students who are most likely to drop out of online courses; therefore, the data generated will actually be from those who are "already well served."

The report also stated that research shows that lower-performing students do better in face-to-face classes than in online settings.

In 2010 the Community College Research Center analyzed the findings of a 2009 Department of Education meta-analysis of online learning studies, which is frequently cited as favoring the outcomes of online instruction over face-to-face courses. However, the Department of Ed actually revised its report in 2010 based in part on the CCRC's analysis. The CCRC had found no evidence supporting the idea that fully online college courses would "produce superior learning outcomes, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students."

Studies done at two-year colleges in Virginia and Washington found that fully online courses tend to have higher withdrawal rates than comparable face-to-face classes and that all students tended to perform more poorly in a fully-online class; those with a strong academic background experienced only a "small dip in performance"; those who were less prepared had a "larger dip."

What online classes can't provide, the report noted, are components that are proving particularly beneficial for "low-income, first-generation college students." These include "manifestations" of faculty caring and support, student involvement in campus life, financial aid, advising, counseling, and tutoring services.

The coalition concluded its latest salvo to those who would rush into online learning with a plea to consider issues of social justice: "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.... The dangers of a two‐tiered system make the 'online everything' providers' rhetoric about bringing higher education to the masses particularly chilling. For most American students, who are increasingly diverse, low‐income, and academically less prepared for the rigors of collegiate study, an uncritical rush to 'online everything' may, despite the promise, ultimately provide only access to failure."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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