Can Online Education Really Make the Cut?


Online courses aren't a true replacement for the classroom, but they do provide another option.

It’s hard to deny the marvelous impact that technology has had on college education. The World Wide Web and search engines such as Google have allowed students and faculty alike to amass research material in minutes, a job that in the past would have taken weeks or months. Course management systems such as Moodle, Sakai and Blackboard allow professors to build video and graphics into lessons, set up forums for discussions, have interactive video chats, and store lessons and readings for students to refer to at their leisure. New technology has even allowed the development of totally online courses, which may be either of the "same-time-different-place" or "different-time-different place" variety. As one who has both taken and taught traditional classroom courses, classroom courses enhanced by technology, and each type of pure online course, I can certainly vouch for technology’s beneficial impact.

Of course, colleges, particularly those considered the great research universities, have always been major innovators, and have developed science and technology that not only fueled the economy, but also provided widespread benefits. Jonathan R. Cole, in his comprehensive "The Great American University" details many of the innovations developed at colleges that reshaped the nation. These include:

  • Artificial joints (UCLA)
  • The insulin gene (University of California at San Francisco)
  • The pacemaker (Harvard University)
  • The Heimlich maneuver (Cornell University)
  • Kidney dialysis (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Embryonic stem cells (University of Wisconsin)
  • Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  • Bar codes (Drexel University)
  • Radar (MIT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (Harvard and Stanford, independently)
  • The theory behind the electronic digital computer (Iowa State)
  • A working electronic digital computer (University of Pennsylvania)
  • World Wide Web graphic browser (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  • Many, many other innovations too numerous to include here

Because colleges have such a deep history of supporting innovation, particularly in the technology area, and providing never before thought of educational tools and devices, it’s hard to even ask whether online education has its place. But the truth is that the answer is complex because college education is in a great state of flux at the moment with a lot of seemingly unconnected trouble signs:

Colleges are very expensive. The constant increases in tuition are, in part, a result of the costs of technology, as well as personnel salaries and benefits (and, for public institutions, the withdrawal in of public funding).

Student Debt
The tuition costs have led to a dramatic increase in student Loans and a public outcry about the great indebtedness of college graduates.

Online Has Become an Option
Colleges such as the University of Phoenix have shown that course material for an entire degree program can be delivered online. As a result, most colleges now have at lease some online presence, and many offer full degree programs (including graduate degrees) online.


Our Views About Education Have Changed
The Great Recession and declining job market have created pressure from businesses and many students to view colleges as technical training schools rather than places for broad-based education. (For related reading, check out As Technology Changes, How to Avoid Becoming Obsolete.)

Massive Open Online Courses Have Emerged
The success of online courses, coupled with pressures to reduce costs, have led many colleges to join together in consortiums, called massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are designed to provide quality online course materials. According to Andrew Delbanco in his 2011 revision of his interesting "College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be," there are almost 2 million students enrolled in courses at Coursera, a collaboration of more than 30 universities (including Stanford, the University of Michigan and Princeton). Coursera is far from the only online platform. EdX, founded by Harvard and MIT, and Straighterline, a platform for low-cost college courses with credits transferable to college "partners," are all players in this new and highly competitive field. (Read more about MOOCs in What Do Massive Online College Courses Mean for Education?)

Classroom Enrollment Is Down
The availability of online courses offered as part of a single college curriculum and through online consortiums has already had a ripple effect. Enrollment is down in classroom courses that can be taken online (and in many colleges, overall enrollment is down). Colleges have been able to reduce expenses through the elimination of these courses, easing the demand for physical classrooms and often reducing faculty.

These factors have led William Bennett, former secretary of education under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to postulate to question whether college is even worth considering for many students. In "Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education"– he and co-author David Wilezol make the case that "too many people are going to college." Rather than have graduates with huge debt unable to find jobs, Bennett would prefer more young people tracked into lower-cost vocational training. In fact, he dismisses colleges as places for "drinking, drugs, partying, sex and sometimes learning." (Bennett has an undergraduate degree from Williams, a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, and a law degree from the Harvard Law School).

Perhaps all these arguments stand in favor of online learning, but that doesn’t mean it can outright replace the college classroom. In fact, I think a transition to more online courses requires an understanding of the key differences between online and classroom teaching. I see them as such:

  • Online classes require much more work, both by professors and students. Because professors cannot make eye contact with students, there must be much more material provided, both for instructional and assessment purposes.
  • Online courses require more discipline from students. They must do their own scheduling rather than have it mandated by a classroom schedule. In fact, if it were up to me, I would prohibit freshmen from taking online courses.
  • Students must also be very computer and Internet literate. I believe that passing a computer literacy test should be mandatory before taking online courses.
  • The classroom environment provides amenities such a lounges, a cafeteria, a library, outdoor gathering places, etc., where students have a constant ability to interact with other students. Many online programs provide online library access, and some try to provide meeting rooms. What they do not provide is the same experience as resident college life. Some people would say that experience is worth something too.

A battle between technology and education isn’t really the point here so much as how best to make use of technology to provide flexible, lower cost education while retaining the true idea of college as an educational experience rather than a training course. The determination of how to do this will probably have to involve some combination of educational policy and, perhaps, politics. After all, the technology is already here. The key now is to figure out how to use it to our advantage.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…