Online education programs are not worth the money they save

Mukund Rathi

As a computer science major, I am aware of the ever-increasing and potentially beneficial impact of technological innovation on society. Take education – students have access to a staggering amount of information and material through laptops and computer labs, online academic journal databases and forums like Piazza and Canvas. Most students actively use these resources — it would be foolish not to. In these cases, technological innovation means opportunities for advancement. In other cases, though, technological innovation means excuses for devolution.

Recently, UT unveiled a  “synchronous massive online course” (SMOC) program that provides both UT-students and non-UT students access to an online course for a several-hundred dollar fee.  The program was touted as a way to retain the benefits of in-class learning while bringing those benefits to the masses. However, the “masses” didn’t exactly show up: Fewer than 40 non-UT students signed up as of the first full week of classes. It’s worth taking a step back and asking the question: What’s the purpose of SMOCs, or online education in general?

The main argument is that it is cheaper, because technology makes it easier to bring lectures and other course material to a wider audience. But there is a hidden assumption in this argument which is almost always taken for granted by our higher education leaders: that the quality of online education is sufficient to even be worth the cost.

In July, San Jose State University decided to halt its project with online course provider Udacity because two-thirds of the students enrolled in those online classes failed them. In contrast, the non-online versions of the course averaged at about two-thirds passing. The courses were Elementary Statistics, College Algebra and Entry-Level Math.

As another example, a five-year study issued in 2011 by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center tracked 51,000 students enrolled in Washington State technical and community colleges. It found a correlation between online course enrollment and failure to earn a degree or transfer to four-year colleges.

The reasons for both of these failures are quite simple, and have been consistently cited by critics of online education schemes. The impersonality and lack of interaction in these online courses make learning and even passing far more difficult, especially for struggling students — having a teacher physically present to answer your questions and work through things with the class makes the difference.

On that note, it’s worth differentiating between “learning” and “passing,” because that’s a distinction that the “innovators” in higher education often blur. Transferring courses like Entry-Level Math to the online realm supposedly simplifies the way students acquire knowledge. But why “simplify” the process of learning? Having basic math skills is important enough to spend time on. If we think (as the “innovators” seem to) that education is simply about getting the credits to get the degree and then join the workforce, then we should simplify away. It’s the same simplification that comes about in the push for more high-stakes testing, which conflates multiple-choice questions and grades with the struggle and reward of acquiring actual knowledge.

The immediate counter-argument is that despite online education’s lesser quality, it is a necessary evil in light of the need to save money. The issue with this argument is that the cost of something can only be deemed appropriate when compared to its value. The value of online education is unproven: Examples like San Jose State and the Columbia University report showing the high failing rates of students in online courses point out online education’s deficiencies. It is irresponsible to invest large sums of money in programs of dubious quality, but disturbingly, that did not stop the UT System Board of Regents from paying out $5 million to partner with online education platform edX last year. The lesser cost of online education is often brought up, but large, undependable investments are as impractical as it gets.

The so-called “innovations” of online education- MOOCs, i>clickers, the flipped classroom, and so on – provide a false choice between quality and cost. These are not innovations. They are excuses for risky spending that pass over the question of educational quality.

Rathi is a computer science honors sophomore from Austin.