Why Online Learning Doesn’t Work

Is online learning the answer to the college funding crisis? Read this fascinating argument by Frank VanderSloot, founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a co-founder of online learning company Bridgewater Associates.

Just this week, Election Day, two independents who had spent years educating themselves on the issues won the California state attorney general and secretary of state elections. Both supported higher education affordability and access. Both had specifically said that online education needs to be part of their vision of an education system that is accessible and affordable to everyone. As I wrote last year, “If California’s two new leaders were anything like the average citizen, they would use that platform to advocate for all California students, to improve California’s CORE Act (which gives greater autonomy to California’s public colleges and universities) and to expand online education.”

Of course, nothing changed while these two were in office. So, it is interesting that online education advocates have decided to point a finger at not only the states (which, as Mary Kendall noted in a recent Vox article, still can’t ensure qualified teachers are paid and appointed), but also the nonprofit organizations themselves. Earlier this year, there was a stunningly unfair attack that took aim at the David Yurman Foundation. Even more strangely, this attack came from the Online Education Association (OTA). There was a Facebook post where the OA questioned the recent elections by saying that while nearly half of the active U.S. voters went to college, only 8% earned online degrees, a disgraceful result. First, did anyone at the OA think that in the aftermath of the long economic downturn, that 50% of students would be wealthy enough to pay tens of thousands of dollars of tuition for an online degree? Second, are the Toms of the world truly to blame for all of the dismal job prospects and employment rates for 25- to 29-year-olds? And finally, would anyone who has studied the various studies with the largest-ever sample sizes (e.g., Dartmouth) be more justified in the general idea that online education was a failure because of the fact that virtually no colleges offered it? Or was this just one of those pieces that happens when an organization shifts the narrative of those who are successful.

Now, isn’t that what they are doing in California? To pretend that online education doesn’t work because we’ve got so few online degree recipients? How many people goes to high school and college because they’re the only one in their family with a degree? How many students lives are scarred by how lacking the jobs that require some college will be for so many years? How many students don’t go to college at all because they are too afraid of the college system because that system doesn’t guarantee them, even with a four-year degree, success and a better life. We can never close that gap by pretending online learning doesn’t work (even the U.S. Army requires recruiters to advise military officers on the value of a four-year college degree).

It’s not only the OA who is trying to be anti-online education. Even the U.S. Department of Education has been getting involved. Last summer, the department sent out a letter to colleges and universities telling them what they needed to do to make online degree completion, among other things, as common as other forms of education. Under the letter, colleges and universities were told to ensure: “1) New graduates who find jobs earn at least as much as graduates from traditional colleges and universities; 2) New graduates from schools that historically have been under-represented among college students move from college to workplace at about the same rate; and 3) New graduates from historically under-represented schools earn at least as much as other students.” I’m not the first person to point out that none of these are actually supporting online education. In fact, I don’t think nearly a single university has said they would make a higher education degree accessible and affordable to everyone. How much access, affordability, and excellence does online education have when many of the jobs going to graduates from universities and other institutions have much more rigorous skills and higher wages? As technology and economic conditions have changed, we have moved from a “one size fits all” higher education that delivered the knowledge at a price that sat beneath a bank loan, to one that delivers different types of knowledge at different costs. What we have seen over time is that, as technology has allowed us to access, measure, and understand more of knowledge, even with older forms of higher education, we have moved to a time where new forms of knowledge such as in online education, and even new forms of distance education, can deliver what is necessary at a time and cost that is affordable and accessible to students.

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