Today’s New York Times features an editorial titled, “The Trouble With Online College.” The editorial argues that rather than offering college-level education at vastly increased distribution and much lower costs that “study after study” evince that these efforts are flawed, particularly for those who are struggling with classwork.
This argument and the evidence supporting them are thin and wanting; indeed this piece showcases that online education detractors are clinging to an old framework of thinking, failing to consider and assess new opportunities that online education enables.
A major shortcoming in this editorial and the critics’ arguments, is a lack of appreciation and understanding of internet economics and offerings and their fundamental differences from traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ ones.
The New York Times piece, for example, opens by highlighting Stanford University’s offering by “a pair of celebrity professors” who attracted more than “150,000 students from around the world to a noncredit” course. It then criticizes this approach by calling out huge attrition rates: 90% or more in large classes.
This attrition is natural and right in line with other internet offerings. This Stanford course, and many like it, are free or nearly free. In the internet world, free service offerings can attract lots of people who sign up and try things out. Large numbers fall off. It doesn’t make the service offering a failure, it’s just the way the internet works. Indeed, large scale internet businesses built on a freemium business model (Evernote and Dropbox) for example, have gained success in offering a free trial experience that a small percentage actually convert over an pay for. A similar theme is at work with internet education offerings that are free or nearly free. For example I’ve signed up for free classes at MIT just to check them out that I’ve not completed. I’ve paid (under $100) for other online courses, some of which I have completed. The fact that I don’t complete the course doesn’t mean I don’t get value from it, it just may not be a fit for what I’m looking to learn. Indeed, having so many educational offerings that are so much cheaper and easily available than going to a university or even a community college is hugely beneficial.
My second critique of this editorial is that there is no mention of an even more fundamental difference internet-based education offers relative to traditional classroom learning: namely the ability for a student to truly proceed at his or her own pace. In a traditional classroom environment, the instructor has a certain syllabus or plan that has to be achieved by a certain timeframe–a semester, a quarter, whatever. For some students, the pacing is perfect. For others, its too slow, and for others, its too fast.
With online-based learning, a student has the ability to proceed at her own pace–fast or slow. If you don’t get trigonometry as quickly as the teacher demands, well, you can just keep going over it until it makes sense. Further, if the suggested resources don’t make sense to you, you are a Google search away from finding other online offerings that explain the topic slightly differently, in a manner that may make better sense to you.
The good news here is that despite the critics, today’s students (the vast majority of whom grew up in the internet age) are already adjusting. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of college students who download podcasts of lectures from classes similar to those they are taking but from rival colleges. They do this to reinforce learning on the subjects they are taking in class. But they are also finding that the perspectives that other professors at other universities offers broadens their views on the topic, resulting in better grades from their own classes. Again, with the power to broaden distribution and slash costs, online educational offerings are going to disrupt education, and students will do this irrespective of whatever critics say.
And this, I think, is a core failure in this editorial. It underscores that traditional college education thinking remains stuck in an outmoded, costly, increasingly questionable product. For nearly $200,000 for a private 4 year college, and a non-trivial fraction of that for state and even community colleges, post-secondary education has less and less to show. Embracing and extending the internet offerings is an unavoidable step. Leaning on flimsy arguments like high attrition rates, and failing to account for the go at your own pacing just showcases that those embracing the status quo fail to see the transformative changes upon us in education.