Opinion Columns & Blogs

Another View: Promise of online classes is an illusion

While technology has provided educators with useful tools for decades, the new mad rush for online courses in our state’s public colleges and universities is based on a “facts-be-damned” assumption that online higher education can increase student access to college degrees while reducing the cost to the state and students.

That notion is not proven, plenty of data says it is wrong, and the push to implement untested, grandiose claims cannot serve students or our state well.

That is why it was disappointing to see The Bee’s editorial (“State needs fresh vision for higher ed,” Oct. 18), calling for more online education as a solution to California’s higher education needs.

The editorial’s endorsement of the Little Hoover Commission’s call for speedy and massive expansion of online education should be reconsidered in light of key facts.

Three papers just released by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education provide crucial factual data – and raise serious doubts – about the promises made by promoters of online higher education.

For one, we must confront the digital divide – inequities between those who have regular, reliable access to digital technologies and those who do not. In fact, substantial evidence shows the digital divide is an impediment for the very students that online promoters claim they want to reach – low-income students, students of color and academically underprepared students. Furthermore, there is growing research showing that these same students experience an online achievement gap.

Another “promise” of online higher education is that it will reduce costs. Again the facts tell a different story. Experts in online instruction – at least those who aren’t peddling goods and services – point out that saving money is one of the worst reasons to expand online instruction.

Why? The assumption that online courses offer savings because the course can be repeated many times does not bear out. Experts say the shelf life of online courses is much shorter than assumed and that the costs to update, retool or totally recreate a course are very high. Experts also point out that while faculty costs may go down, the costs for an array of technical staff go up even more.

A lot of people are selling “cyber pie in the sky,” but the truth for students, their parents and our state is this – there is simply no substitute for public investment in higher education.