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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Online Education: Full-speed ahead, or time for a fire drill?

by R Tarpaeian

Education isn’t the first industry to be upended by the internet, and it surely won’t be the last. Online education, aka distance learning, is rapidly proliferating throughout colleges and universities; its future appears inevitable. But there are other seismic trends and innovations ongoing in education. How these trends eventually intersect is unpredictable, but one thing seems certain: higher ed. as we know it will grow increasingly unrecognizable.
With online and self-paced education, the role of the ‘chalk-and-talk’ lecturer gradually disappears, being replaced by students essentially doing the work themselves. Learning is done through a variety of “delivery systems,” all accessible online: video lectures, the e-book textbook, e-tutoring chat systems, etc. The course needs a real teacher to set up, but once that’s done the process can be easily automated.
The second trend affecting higher education is economic. We’re all familiar with the dismal employment statistics of recent college grads due to a global recession that shows no sign of abating.  Chances are you were served your Starbucks coffee this morning from one. Likewise the salesman who put you in that new car. It’s an inconvenient reality and an ugly truth, but in the employment stakes derby a college degree today serves the same purpose formerly satisfied with a high school diploma: a certification of sorts that someone is educable, as in capable of learning tasks required for a specific job for a prospective employer. But there’s one big difference: the high school diploma is free.
College grads struggling to get a job that comports with their expensive education are asking themselves if the thousands of dollars of debt are actually worth it? When considering $250 textbooks, overpriced room-and-board, and perhaps the ultimate injustice: required internships where students pay for the full cost of the credits “earned” from their (usually) unpaid work, the answer for many of them will be “no.”
A third trend is related to the first: open education. Many universities are experimenting with open online classes. These courses don’t qualify for actual credits toward a degree, but at some point that distinction becomes unjustifiable. Why is math expertise learned from khanacademy.org inferior to that obtained by taking a credit course from a university–especially when it’s an online course?  It’s only a matter of time before students rebel at this educational apartheid and demand that their self-directed academic work be treated equally, once institutional rubrics on the same material are satisfied and some appropriate fee is paid.
Colleges are racing to embrace online education. Unless one looks at long term consequences, it appears to be the best thing since sliced bread. A profit-generating machine. Essentially, once an online course is set up, a monkey can be trained to administer it. Classrooms and much of the attendant overhead are eliminated. Costs are slashed. Why is a full-fledged professor required to merely process data from an application program, occasionally communicate with students through the software and generally make sure that everything operates smoothly? Think of the epic labor battles to be waged by teachers’ unions fighting to defend full pay and status—or just simply require a (human) administrator!—in an online-education environment where students teach themselves.
Perhaps the ultimate nightmare scenario on the horizon is the “turnkey” college degree. The criminal mind is always one step ahead of the forces of law and order. Can we really expect humanities professors to recognize every plagiarized paper given the virtually unlimited wealth of literature available online with a few mouse clicks, not to mention the growing number of online businesses created explicitly to service this ‘need’?  How long until it’s possible to purchase a Harvard degree for some fixed but presumably substantial amount of money, from an enterprise that will guarantee a degree after the requisite years of “enrollment”? The ‘customer’ will be required to provide vital statistics including social security number and the infrequent but unavoidable flight-in for the occasional face-to-face.
In short, educators need to carefully consider the consequence of the following trends:

  • Functional equivalence of college degree with high school diploma of generations past.
  • Sky-high college tuition costs resulting in crippling debt loads for graduates.
  • No guarantee that a college degree will be rewarded with a secure, good-paying, professional job, and the growing awareness in students and parents that a college education isn’t necessarily required for a happy, debt-free, prosperous life—there are alternatives.
  • Online education that is ripe for fraud, and not worth the cost as professors (the main cost factor) are removed from their teaching role.
  • Competing, often free, online education systems delivering a product of equal quality.
Educators rushing to take advantage of technological advances in education should be careful what they wish for...