Why Be Against Online Learning

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After 40 years of teaching, I’ve just concluded that professional leadership and education should not be combined and promoted. I know this not only because my college was the first academic institution to create a focused bachelor of education program but also because I’ve worked in both the teaching and professional world for more than 40 years. And my father went to college – he started a year in high school, then returned to trade school for his professional certification.

I know that I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, stuck defending the category of “educational leader” and the education profession at the same time that a week earlier, an important and long-overdue national commission called for us to create an overhauled national policy and regulatory structure that would fund and support community colleges.

According to the commission’s recommendations:

The nation needs a “hub-and-spoke” approach to providing quality community college education to feed low-income populations and support regional economies.

Community colleges must have the latitude to customize programs to meet the needs of their customers.

Community colleges must be a service provider – they need to provide value and value to its customers and raise its customers’ value of doing business with the institution.

A critical question is whether the majority of students who come to college to earn a college degree really need an existing degree, especially given that many of them have already earned high school diplomas.

To give you an idea of where I am on this issue, the most recent America’s Promise Alliance study on higher education investment estimated that by 2020, almost half of all American jobs will require some form of postsecondary credential (more than half these jobs will be for non-college educated workers). Moreover, about 20 percent of college grads earn an advanced degree (such as a PhD or master’s degree) at least four years after their undergraduate degree. Further, lower-skilled workers report being unhappy with the quality of their education, indicating that more than half of today’s college graduates don’t feel that their education was worth the money.

I’ve been in a good position as an instructor, teaching both in the classroom and online. I have no doubts about the worth of many of my students. My students have shown me that online education can produce significant dividends for them. They’ve paid less for my online course than in-person course – they stay in school longer and get more course credit as a result. They’ve been to my field conferences and college convocations. But when they go to work or head out to the world, many don’t know what job they will have that day or what skills they are going to need. They don’t know how a certification through a short online course can really help them succeed. They don’t know how there are thousands of professionals around the world who can teach them. And too many employers leave these students wondering how their skills translate to an actual job offer.

If we really want to see the greatest public benefit from postsecondary education, then we need a better, clearer definition of what we’re really talking about. And we should both promote the excellent online learning programs and provide resources to community colleges to better help students get the skills they need to compete in the competitive marketplace.

I’m afraid that promoting online learning over a traditional curriculum is the wrong way to do this. Online programs certainly have their place. If our nation is to make some headway in providing equal access to higher education, then we need to build online programs that are meaningful and useful for students.

That isn’t working. In fact, online learning is having a negative impact on our competitiveness, not to mention the traditional education we are offering to students.

In order to create a clearer definition of what education is for our nation, we need to begin having a national conversation about what “education” actually means. If education means that we treat our students with kindness, commitment, and the desire to learn, then we have a far greater likelihood of meeting our nation’s commitment to universal access to high-quality education.

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