Dem Bones, Dem Barebones Education...

Peter Wood

In an editorial, “Virtual Ivy: Why the US Needs More E-Colleges,” the Christian Science Monitor this week plugged online education. In “College for $99 a Month,” Kevin Carey writes in the new issue of Washington Monthly that e-colleges are the inevitable wave of the future and the old institutions are mostly doomed.  

The Monitor and the Monthly’s messages aren’t identical but are close enough to give pause. A moment seems to have arrived. Online education has been a distinct but small sector of higher education for almost two decades, but a growing number of observers believe it is poised to break out and become something more. The Monitor’s editorialists see this as good news. Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a Washington think tank, sees a rougher time still ahead: a moment when “the Internet bomb explodes in [higher education’s] basement.” 

Who is right? The National Association of Scholars, of course, has thousands of members who were shaped by traditional forms of instruction and study and who have pursued lives as scholars and teachers within the traditional structure of American colleges and universities. We doubt that many of our members would welcome Carey’s vision of low-cost online “innovators” sweeping away the whole in-person form of higher education.   

One approach is simply to deny Carey’s predictions. People go to college for lots of reasons beyond simply racking up units of instruction. Low-cost alternatives to college cannot compete with the total college experience, can they? Some NAS members do indeed respond in this fashion, but not all. Some, to the contrary, are enthusiastic about the rise of online learning and picture the emergence of sophisticated virtual universities that will attract top students and superb faculty and marry them via gigantic virtual libraries (think Google) and ever more powerful instructional tools. It is already possible to do virtual surgery, virtual chemistry experiments, and other simulations that are arguably better than the real thing. 

Other NAS members acknowledge the economic and political push behind online colleges but are skeptical that this form of instruction can do much for students who aren’t ardently motivated. NAS public affairs director Glenn Ricketts has expressed such doubts on this website in July in “Online Education: Off Base?”   

Some of the disagreement depends on the timeline. Hardly anyone thinks higher education is about to crumble in the next year or two before an onslaught of online only (or online mostly) colleges. The Internet “explosion” that Carey predicts is at least a few years away. On the other hand, I sit on the board (I’m unpaid and no financial interest) of a for-profit online college called Yorktown University, and I know first-hand that there are lots of canny investors who believe that an academically solid form of online education will soon be making large inroads in the higher education market. 

Glenn Ricketts, on reading the Christian Science Monitor editorial, was less sanguine. The editorialists, he says, like online ed because:

They’re convinced that it can do many good things: students can work at a pace that suits them, professors are compelled to design better instructional methods, and colleges are able to provide access to courses for students unable to attend class on campus. For students who have grown up in the Internet Age, learning online comes as second nature, and may well be superior to the traditional classroom model. 

The CSM editors cite a recent study from the U.S. Department of Education that is supposed to confirm these observations: “Quite a seal of approval,” as they put it.   Best of all is the fact that the Obama administration recognizes the immense value of online education and is currently setting up a new “national skills college” which is slated to provide 1200 courses available to community college students free of charge.  

While CSM editors don’t identify that DOE study, Ricketts thinks it must be the one he wrote about in July. He adds:

I can’t help wondering if they’ve actually read the document, which the DOE itself designates as a “metastudy.” That was because it wasn’t really an actual “study” which presents new findings based on original research. Instead, its endorsement of online education rests on a very narrow selection (51 out of 1132) of “empirical” surveys or articles devoted to online education between 1996 and 2008. DOE, as we noted previously, apparently hand-picked the ones which bolstered its own predisposition in favor of online courses.

Carey devotes much of his Washington Monthly article to a company called StraighterLine that offers many self-paced courses for $99 per month on an all-you-can-eat basis. He tells the story of one very highly motivated student, Barbara Solvig, who threw herself into the work for up to eighteen hours a day and finished four courses in two months for a total of $200. 

One suspects that the number of Barbara Solvig-like students in the United States is limited, and the Solvig component of StraighterLine’s business doesn’t pose much threat to the more relaxed pace of mass education in the United States. But Carey’s prediction is worth bearing in mind. The eagerness of the Department of Education to shepherd more students into online learning is not to be underestimated either. The real significance of the Christian Science Monitor editorial is that it signals the growing mainstream respectability of this form of barebones education. 

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