Why the online education craze will leave many students behind

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TIME
By: Noliwe M. Rooks
July 30, 2012

Why the online education craze will leave many students behind

You have probably heard some of the hoopla about elite universities offering free online courses through Coursera, a new Silicon Valley start-up founded by Stanford University computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. In just the past few weeks Coursera has added 12 new universities to their lineup, bringing their total to 16, including Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke and Johns Hopkins.

The company's website says that their goal is to "give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few," and accordingly, much of the news coverage has focused on how this will democratize learning. Two weeks after Coursera announced its initial round of partnerships, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a plan to invest $60 million in a similar course platform called edX, and then a third company, Udacity, announced that it, too, would be joining the fray.

Despite near universal enthusiasm for such projects, it's important to take a few steps back. First off, although the content is free for now, it's unlikely that it will remain that way for long. According to an analysis of one of Coursera's contracts, both the company and the schools plan to make a profit in the future-- they just haven't quite figured out the best way to do that yet. But more importantly, I am concerned that computer-aided instruction will actually widen the gap between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else instead of lessen it.

This is what has been happening in K-12 public schools. Over the past 10 years, public school districts have invested millions of dollars into various types of online and computer-aided learning and instruction programs, yet few are able to show the educational benefit of their expenditures for a majority of students. Those who benefitted most are those who are already well organized and highly motivated. Other students struggle, and may even lose ground.

In terms of learning on the college level, the Department of Education has looked at thousands of research studies from 1996 to 2008 and found that in higher education, students rarely learned as much from online courses as they did in traditional classes. In fact, the report found that the biggest benefit of online instruction came from a blended learning environment that combined technology with traditional methods but warned that the uptick had more to do with the increased amount of individualized instruction students got in that environment, not the presence of technology. For all but the brightest, the more time students spend with traditional instruction, the better they seem to do.

Supporters of online learning says that all anyone needs to access a great education is a stable Internet connection. But only 35 percent of households earning less than $25,000 have broadband access to the Internet, compared to 94% of households with income in excess of $100,000. In addition, according to the 2010 Pew Report on Mobile Access, only half of black and latino homes have Internet connections at all, compared to almost 65% of white households. Perhaps most significantly, many blacks and latinos primarily use their cell phones to access the Internet, a much more expensive and less than ideal method for taking part in online education. In short, the explosion of this type of educational instruction, though free for now, may be leaving behind the very students who need education the most.

It's not hard to understand why the chance to watch lectures, pass tests, and even maybe get a formal certificate from an elite school would stir an enormous amount of excitement. Until now, most students would never have the opportunity to experience any part of what happens on these elite campuses. But as the recently released Pew Report on the American Dream makes clear, a four-year college degree is the only type of educational intervention that promotes upward mobility from the lower-middle class. If we really want to democratize education, finding creative ways to realistically open up colleges to different communities will do more to help than will a model that, despite its stated intentions, is more beneficial for students for students who are already wealthy, academically well-prepared an highly motivated. We ought to make sure that everyone has access to the same opportunities or we will further widen the opportunity gaps we mean to close.

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