Thanks to my former colleague Ben Miller for tweeting this article.  You can look at the original article from The New York Times here.

There is trouble with online college, certainly, and as a relatively new method of education (including fully-online degrees), there are significant obstacles through which the education community needs to break.   It’s not had the pedagogical study that decades of face-to-face, traditional university settings have had.  And pedagogical methods are changing as rapidly as the latest iPad lands in a freshman dorm.  So let’s take a look at where the NYT oversimplifies and misses the mark on its criticism of online college.

By opening with Stanford’s much-lauded Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), it fails to distinguish the significant differences between those low-risk courses and enrolling in an online course as a fee-paying student.  90% attrition isn’t surprising, considering:

  • Students enrolled in a MOOC have very little incentive to succeed; there is no “punishment” like a poor grade, being forced to repeat a course, or pay back financial aid.
  • Rarely do students enroll in a MOOC for anything other than professional development or personal interest.
  • Many hiring, employment, and business experts discourage including non-credit courses on a resume.

Don’t get me wrong – I love TED as much as the next gal.  But I wouldn’t consider myself a “student” when I’m watching an instructional video or free lecture.

Let’s turn to actual, high-stakes online courses.  The article goes on to rightly point out the serious barriers that factor into being a true online student.  “The research has shown over and over again that community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return. Worse still, low-performing students who may be just barely hanging on in traditional classes tend to fall even further behind in online courses.”

These retention figures are a norm across the country.  But universities and small community colleges have tools and research to institute policies and help students achieve.  Students who can simply sign up for an online class, get an instructor who is not prepared for the online environment, and fail because they lack technological capabilities is a tragedy.  At a minimum, all online programs should offer the following basics:

  • Rigorous frontloading and required training for faculty who want to teach online.  An instructor should go through a comprehensive training program that includes practice, mentoring, and, if unsuccessful, should not be allowed to teach online.
  • Restriction on enrollment for students who lack online skills.  These skills could be tested in an assessment center prior to enrollment.  It should test advanced technical skills; time management; and understanding of differences between online and face-to-face environments as starting points.  Further, students should be required to have a modern, well-functioning computer with several “back-ups” in case of hardware failure (such as the library).  Equipment failure is not an option for the online student.
  • Continuing education and development for both faculty and students as technology changes.

Instructors should be trained on the concept of online presence.  Managing students through weekly e-mails isn’t enough.  Video, VoIP, imagery, discussion boards, and journals are all simple and easy-to-use tools that move the instructor away from an anonymous facilitator and back into the role of professor.  (And this just scratches the surface in terms of what instructors should and should not be doing to instruct a successful online course).

Certainly, online courses are a cash cow for many institutions (especially the for-profits who pre-package dry course material that can be cycled through dozens of instructors without changing).  The initial expense of training instructors and preparing students for the online environment would be easily overcome with a highly successful online program that attracts students globally.  What it takes is significant planning, analysis, and administrative support – which not all colleges are, unfortunately, willing to do.