Defending Online Learning, Part One

Thomas K. Lindsay

Kicking and screaming, I have been hauled into acceptance of online learning. More than acceptance, in fact. After more than a decade of railing against the inhumanity of it all, I can no longer ignore the plethora of studies testifying to its educational efficacy. I now see it as a powerful means to address the crisis in American higher education. 

That crisis consists of three elements: skyrocketing tuitions; crushing student-loan debt (approximately a trillion dollars, which is more than total credit-card debt); and declining learning outcomes, as measure by instruments such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment. These three factors are really two, because the rise in student indebtedness is the product of tuitions that, in the last 25 years, have risen four times faster than inflation. 

For some time now, we’ve heard the following criticism of online education: “Its only virtue is that it’s cheap; it has little educational value compared with traditional, fact-to-face education.” This claim no longer can withstand scrutiny. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education published a review of no fewer than 44 studies evaluating post-secondary students. The report concluded that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

Online learning’s benefits consist, first and foremost, in the greater flexibility and customization it offers. In addition, students have a far wider range of choices of teachers and subjects than they do with traditional brick-and-mortar education. Also important, as the Goldwater Institute’s Dan Lips recently documented, online education has the capacity to alter the criteria by which students ascend to higher grade levels, “shifting the focus from ‘seat-time’ to a competency or mastery-based approach.” Because of the capacity of online education to customize learning on a scale never before possible, students can “proceed to higher levels as they master subjects,” rather than being forced to proceed at the same pace of the rest of the class. Also, “customized learning programs can allow for real-time monitoring and tracking” of progress, which allows for timely interventions in those instances when a student falls behind.

In light of these studies, online education’s critics have proved only half-right: Yes, online education’s greater efficiency makes it “cheaper” than traditional brick-and-mortar education. As Terry Moe and John Chubb state it in their 2009 book, Liberated Learning, through the use of online learning, “schools can be operated at lower cost, relying more on technology (which is relatively cheap) and less on labor (which is relatively expensive).”

The good news of online learning’s benefits comes at a time when the general public has begun to catch on to the fact that the cost of higher education has headed north while its value has veered south. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 57 percent of potential students say that the higher-education system fails to provide good value for the cost, and 75 percent say college is unaffordable.

According to the Babson Survey Research Group, 31 percent of higher-education students currently are enrolled in one or more online courses. More than 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.

We can expect these numbers to grow — and rapidly. We can expect also that higher education in America will, in a short time, look very different from its current form.

In my next column, I will address a second critique of online learning, which is that it serves only to exacerbate the separateness already pervasive in modern life.

— Thomas K. Lindsay serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars and is director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during George W. Bush’s second term.

This article originally appeared on Phi Beta Cons.

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