The Danger of Online Education

by Hayden Hollingsworth

Much has been written about higher education and its problems.  Financing has escalated to the point that only the very wealthy can afford a baccalaureate degree to say nothing of the cost of graduate education now needed to enhance one’s chance of landing a job with a bright future.  Student loans often leave graduates saddled with more debt than they can possibly manage, especially at an entry level position.

With the advent of the totally wired society, educational institutions have added another wrinkle.  Colleges are able to shut down expensive-to-operate bricks and mortar facilities and offer much classwork online.  Students don’t have to be housed and fed, travel expenses are eliminated, faculty can lecture from the comfort of their homes, and tens of thousands of students can sit at their computers and learn the finer points of quantum mechanics.  Or can they?

The media are full of advertisements of colleges and universities that are one hundred percent online.  No idyllic tree-lined campuses; they have been replaced by a massive computer network.  One would think the cost savings for students would quickly address the funding problems, but that does not appear to be the case.  In some instances, the cost for an online associate degree (two years) can exceed $50,000.  In addition to the high cost there are other pitfalls awaiting the unwary online student.

In talking with successful men and women in mid-career, almost without exception, they will point to specific professor or advisor who changed the direction of their lives.  Even if the instructional quality of an online-for-profit university matches that of a first-rate standard campus, there will be no graduates who point to their laptop as their salvation.

What about quality control?  I can obtain an online “PhD” in less time than it will take to finish this column.  It will truly not be worth cost of the paper my printer uses to produce it.  Obviously, there are online universities that have faculty whose credentials are acceptable, but I do wonder if I could, with my 25 years of formal education, be hired by such an institution just on the basis of my curriculum vitae?  I would certainly hope not.

Then there’s the matter of the student.  Is he/she really doing the work?  I recently heard a college professor (a bricks and mortar place) questioning a student about a paper entitled “The Use of Symbolism in Dante’s Paradise Lost.” When it was pointed out to the student that John Milton would be mystified by his loss of authorship, the student was incensed.  “That title can’t be wrong.  My mother wrote that paper!”  The sense of personal accountability can easily be diminished when the professor is a face 3000 miles away who you will never meet.

Maybe even a greater danger is the loss of learning about social interactions.  I know of a director of counseling in an outstanding traditional university who says the center is flooded with calls every year when the freshmen have arrived.  Parents are demanding the Counseling Center go “straighten out my child’s roommate who has been ugly to her.”  The hard drive may crash, the 21st century equivalent to “the dog ate my homework,” but sooner or later we all have to learn how to deal with difficult social situations.  There will be no software for that.

I asked Dr. N.L. Bishop, President of the Jefferson College of Health Sciences, how his school was going to deal with the online associate nursing degrees that are being offered at twice the cost of the traditional route.  He said all educators are watching this carefully and being sure that the online course work they offer is monitored to insure quality on both sides of the lectern.  Without question, there will be a place for online learning, but it is not without risks.

To look on it as a cost effective tool, it clearly is not.  More and more studies are appearing that the profit goes to the schools which now is a billion dollar a year industry.  Slick TV ads notwithstanding, there are few data that support for profit colleges as an effective educational method.  Like every other product on the market, when it comes to education let the buyer beware!