Why online education is mostly a fantasy

By Francisco Dao , written on April 25, 2013

From The News Desk

If you listen to the advocates of online learning, MOOCs and Internet-based courses will cure all of our education problems. Just hand out some Android tablets, stream some courses in Python, and sit back and watch as everyone magically becomes a highly productive knowledge worker propelling the United States to new heights of economic prosperity. But this vision of online learning is so ridiculous I’m waiting for Ricardo Montalban to show up in a white suit and welcome these people to Fantasy Island.

The online education utopians ignore the fact that free learning has existed for decades in the form of the public library and despite that availability, every kid within bicycling distance to his local branch didn’t turn into a self taught entrepreneur. Suggesting that online courses are the cure-all for our educational needs is like saying all you have to do to teach kids in the ghetto is give away textbooks on the corner.

Recent studies have shown there is a significant gap between the completion rates of online students compared to classroom based students. When you consider that online learning is often promoted as a cost effective solution for at-risk learners who don’t have the financial resources for face-to-face instruction, it becomes clear that the online movement is offering a product that makes it easier to drop out to students who are already more prone to quitting in the first place.

Education is primarily driven by motivation, and online learning doesn’t do anything to address people’s motivational needs. In fact, the nature of online education strips away many of the components that keep students engaged and committed. Many of the factors that online education advocates claim are a benefit, such as time flexibility and the lack of classrooms, are actually a hindrance to learning. Studies have shown that a fixed structure and the sense of belonging that comes from a student body improve completion rates. Allowing students to study on their own removes these components of the support system resulting in lower rates of course completion.

In the end, MOOCs and online programs primarily help those who are self motivated to learn, and the vast majority of these people would have figured out how to educate themselves, whether in college or on their own, regardless of whether or not online courses are available.

Of all the online based learning programs that I’m aware of, only the Minerva Project addresses the inherent weaknesses of online education by incorporating physical campuses with dorms and classrooms where students interact. While the instruction is delivered over the internet, in many ways the Minerva Project resembles a brick and mortar university much more than an online program, certainly when it comes to real world student interaction.

I’m not arguing that online courses have no value. They have tremendous value for those who are self-motivated and prone to seeking out knowledge on their own. But in this regard, online courses play the role of a public library. And just as libraries are utilized by a fairly small percentage of the population and have not solved our educational needs, so too will online courses fail to be the solution to educating the masses.

There’s a scene in the movie "Good Will Hunting" where Will shames an arrogant Harvard student by pointing out that he wasted his money because he “dropped 150 grand on a fucking education you could've got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.” Today that line would be written as “dropped 150 grand on a fucking education you could’ve got for free on the Internet.”

But just as few people in 1997 replaced their formal education with visits to the library despite the massive price differential, so too will most people continue to require structure and a supportive learning environment in the modern age of online education.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]