The New York Times recently published an article entitled Online Courses Are Harming The Students Who Need the Most Help.
The piece, by Susan Dynarski, a well-respected professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, makes the reasoned, evidence-based case that online courses that are offered with little to no instructor interaction are detrimental to students who struggle in traditional classrooms.
She contrasts the performance of these students with academically talented ones, such as those who take MIT’s rigorous online courses, pass proctored exams and gain admittance to an on-campus master’s program.
Dynarski concludes, “For advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support.”
The evidence presented is compelling, but the argument misses an important point: Most higher education online courses are designed, as are many of their on-campus counterparts, from a content-centric, and not a learner-centric view.
Writing about the MIT example, Dynarski states that only learners who “tough it out in an online class” can be admitted to an on-campus program. What’s omitted is that the online classes in question are supposed to be tough: They serve as part of the admissions process to a graduate degree at one of the top schools in the world.
The medium doesn’t matter; the pedagogy does. Courses that are content-centric are designed by faculty to broadcast and transmit their content knowledge, with associated high-stakes summative assessments.
They may enable the ranking of student performance, but are not useful for students who are poorly prepared, whether they are offered in-person or online.
These gatekeeping courses can be disastrous for learners who struggle in them, particularly first-gen, non-traditional students, as they might support the mindset that they can’t succeed in school.
But learner-centric online courses are designed around continuous learner engagement with content in a variety of activities. Students develop deep understandings through multiple, low-stakes assignments that encourage application and promote mastery.
These experiences do produce learners who pass the challenging courses and can apply their knowledge across contexts. Learners leave these courses empowered and better equipped to use online education for their benefit.
Why should we care if learners learn to learn online? Because the future will demand self-directed lifelong learning from a significant portion of the workforce. Current data suggests workers could have have 12 jobs in their lifetimes.
The idea that they will have access to in-person, on-campus education to prepare for even one out of every five of these job changes is absurd. There will be more demand for post-baccalaureate training and education, and it will have to be delivered online.
But if we relegate underperforming students to in-person-only instruction, as Dynarski suggests, we risk widening the digital divide, not closing the achievement gap.
Our work at Wharton to deliver education to companies highlights this gap. We still see a traditional model where high performers (in this case top executives) receive expensive, face-to-face, on-campus education (meals and accommodations included).
This model reinforces the same power structure present on most elite university campuses, where the number of students from families in the top 1 percent of income outnumber the number of students from the bottom 60 percent.
Until the advent of MOOCs, most employees had little to no chance of gaining access to education from top institutions.
Yet, even now that this education is available, the majority of professional learners are using online education to upskill on their own time and their own dime, making it even more critical that the “bottom” 99 percent of employees have the agency and skills to seek out learning on their own.
In the near future, all learners should be able to learn online — and learn to learn online. If we want to use education to lift people out poverty and to allow them to navigate changing economic and social structures, we must ensure that weaker students will be able to learn how to find and use online instruction to the best of their abilities.
We can accomplish this in a number of ways, including:
- smaller online class sizes with frequent synchronous sessions where learners develop semester- and/or year-long relationships with instructors, like Stanford’s Online High School;
- hybrid or blended courses where the online material is designed to be learner-centric; and
- in a flipping of a flipped model, on-campus courses that use social technologies to connect learners to the university, such as the pioneering work done at Georgia State, where they used technology to help close the achievement gap.
We are still in the early days of designing, developing and delivering online education. Learner-centric models of online courses show promise, while new advances in the learning sciences seek to make teaching more effective with greater learning outcomes.
We cannot afford to exclude learners from these ongoing online experiments. Doing so will throw these students under the bus of progress.
Even in these early days, a few truths have become self-evident. We shouldn’t assign content-centric gatekeeping online courses to struggling students. We shouldn’t create online copies of unengaging on-campus courses to save money.
We shouldn’t ignore the sometimes counterintuitive findings of learning science. And we shouldn’t segregate struggling students today from the online learning they will need to thrive in the future.
Anne Trumbore is the senior director of Wharton Online at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.