Is online learning for steerage passengers, while only the elite actually meet their professors? Peter Sacks worries about stratifying and standardizing higher education on Minding the Campus.
Online learning will reduce higher education costs without harming student learning outcomes, argues former Princeton president William G. Bowen in Higher Education in the Digital Age. Bowen estimates teaching labor costs could be cut by 36 percent to 57 percent and cites a study by ITHACA, a non-profit organization, which found online students earn similar scores to students in traditional courses. Furthermore, access to online courses “could reduce the average time it takes to complete a degree, making colleges more productive, affordable and efficient.”
However, cutting teacher labor costs means cutting “interpersonal interactions that are an essential part of an authentic education,” Sacks writes.
. . . we should let fast and cheap educational programs provide students with basic skills and have the universities provide the real education. Faculty will then take on a new role: Instead of lecturing large classes, they will become expert consultants who guide learners in the application of information for solving, creating and inventing. David Brooks recently cited one professor’s prediction that universities will eventually tell students to take certain college courses online, “and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.”
Currently, online learning is primarily for lower-income, lower-achieving students, writes Sacks, citing federal data. In 2007-08, the most recent data available, 18 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online programs. These students were more likely to attend an open-admissions college and to be the first in their families to attend college. Online programs provide access — to not-so-higher education, concludes Sacks.
Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.
At San Jose State, which is experimenting with online courses to reduce costs, philosophy professors criticized an edX course on justice taught by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor and an academic star.
In an open letter, philosophy professors said online courses from elite universities “would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities,” reports the New York Times. “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy depts. across the country is downright scary,” the letter said.
Provost Ellen Junn said nobody had told the philosophy department to use the Sandel course, however several professors said they felt pressured to offer it. Peter J. Hadreas, who chairs the department, “said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.”
Sandel responded, writing, “I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities.”