Attacking online education: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I’ve read a spate of articles lately that question the value of (what the reporters all acknowledge to be a burgeoning number of) online courses. Let me state for the record, once again, that I now teach online. Still, as a self-described paleo-teacher who still believes in the value of diagramming sentences and calculating percent change without calculators, I’m a rather unlikely convert to high tech learning. What’s more, I’m not a total convert. My own experience has raised some red flags about online learning, even as it has persuaded me that this brave new world offers students, teachers, parents and school districts opportunities to improve educational outcomes.

The value of online education is also a hot topic in Utah, or should be, since this state has pioneered state support for online courses. Every Utah public school high school student (including charter school students) is now legally entitled to earn up to two credits per year from accredited providers, with the state footing the bill.

I’ve blogged on this topic before, but I’d like to attempt a more systematic evaluation of the criticisms now being leveled against online courses. To jump to my (tentative) conclusion, I think that some of the criticisms, or at least concerns, have merit. That’s the good. Some of the criticisms strike me as inaccurate, one-sided, or unfair, often because the same concerns apply equally to “regular” classroom instruction. That’s the bad. And some of the most virulent attacks on online education are blatantly protectionist, defending the status quo against choices that students and parents make freely because they meet real educational needs. And yes, I sometimes find that ugly.

Since I’m basically a fan of online education, let me start with what I consider to be a genuine, legitimate concern: Many students who enroll in online courses fail to complete them. So, for example, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “during the 2009-10 school year, Minnesota’s full-time online students finished only 63 percent of the courses they started.”

I’ve experienced this problem firsthand. This summer I offered an online critical reading and essay writing class for students at my high school (Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah.) Most of the forty students who enrolled completed the class, but some turned out to need extra time, and a few dropped out altogether. Some of the students who dropped the class emailed me to say that they’d benefited from the essay-writing instruction and practice, but just didn’t have as much free time in the summer as they’d expected. So be it. One student submitted a rather witty essay about how and why he hated the course; he subsequently dropped out. But even though most finished successfully, I think it’s fair to say that almost all of my students struggled at least a little with adapting to a course that was largely self-paced.

On the other hand, I think it’s also fair to say that every one of the students who enrolled in this class (which was targeted especially, though not exclusively, to students who would be taking an Advanced Placement history or English class the following year) intends to go to college. That means that many of them will walk into a large auditorium-style classroom in August of their freshman year and receive a syllabus from their professor with assigned readings for the entire semester . . . together with the startling announcement that they won’t be evaluated or graded until a midterm sometime well into the fall. I know from talking with many of my former students – who often come by to visit during their Christmas break from college – that these freshmen all too frequently succumb to the temptation to ignore the professor’s schedule. After all, in August October seems awfully far away, and meanwhile college offers so many other enticements . . .

Maybe learning how to stay on schedule – or even experiencing the consequences of failing to stay on schedule – is one of online learning’s potential benefits as well as one of its continuing challenges.

Supporters of online courses also note that these courses enroll a disproportionate number of students who have already failed traditional classroom courses. To quote from the same Minneapolis Star-Tribune article: “Advocates of online learning point out that many students are already behind academically when they enroll. ‘The majority of the students that come to us were struggling in their previous school, and they’ve come to us as an alternative,” said John Huber, head of Insight School of Minnesota, an online high school guided by the Brooklyn Center School District.'”

So what do you think? As always, I welcome comments, either on this site or emailed to me: I’d especially love to hear from students who are taking or have taken online courses.

Here are links to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune article that I cite, and another, fairly typical, article raising concerns about online education, this time from the Washington Post.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.