For several years now, we’ve been told that the imminent revolution in online learning will displace the college experience as we know it. But for all the breathtaking predictions deployed of late, the education futurists insist that online learning holds the key to solving our country’s education problems without critically examining who will be left behind in its wake.
They are, in effect, enamored with a discourse about higher education that neglects the experiences of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
The latest example of the online-learning mantra comes from Kevin Carey, whose new book, The End of College, borrows heavily from this discourse on higher education’s future. We can forgive him the title — presumably, to sell a book about education policy these days, you have to marshal the kind of stirring, paradigm-shattering language of “disruption” and “unbundling” that has so captivated the education futurists of our time.
In Carey’s and others’ world, American higher education is neck-deep in crisis. Tuition is soaring, students aren’t learning enough, and the institutions themselves appear more and more like dinosaurs stumbling under unsustainable business models. On these points, one cannot find much ground for disagreement. Education researchers have been documenting these phenomena for a long time — from the Pell grant’s steady erosion in value to the frightening retreat of public support for higher education.
The futurists claim that the ascendancy of “unbundled” college services, such as the like offered by Coursera, edX, and others, pose a fundamental challenge to the old way of doing things, both financially and pedagogically.
The so-called “end of college,” then, will relegate many smaller, less prestigious institutions to the dustbin while facilitating the emergence of a more user-friendly marketplace for credentials — potentially upending the current structure of institutional stratification.
In such a brave new world, we are made to believe that all students will necessarily benefit from the rise of the digital marketplace, because they will be more empowered to tailor their educational experiences free from the straightjacketing of institutional policies and graduation requirements. The futurists believe that students both rich and poor, with their newly unbundled curricula, will be able to streamline their college experiences and march right into the job market without the illusory badge of a degree granting those candidates from more prestigious institutions an unfair advantage; they’ll need only point to the compendium of micro-credentials they’ve amassed as proof that they’re prepared for success in the workplace.
For sure, such a scenario is likely to describe the experience of a certain kind of student (such as, say, Carey himself, who offers his credentials attained in an online MIT genetics course as proof that this system is durable and equitable). But there is a pernicious selection bias at work here when it comes to who is likely to excel within the kind of self-paced, competency-based learning environments offered by massive open online courses (MOOCs). Unfortunately, it’s a mode of thinking about education that has plagued reform efforts for years, co-opting the same narrow vision for who stands to benefit from advances in technology — and which populations should be targeted by education policies.
The assumption etched deep in all the prognoses coming from the “end of college” futurists is that institutional inertia, not a lack of pedagogical support or the tyranny of poverty, is what’s holding students back from the next great innovation in American life. Just as Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, and other Internet platforms democratized communication and publishing, the futurists would have us believe that all our disadvantaged students need is a computer and a comfy chair to break through the deep institutional inequities of our postsecondary system.
The failure to account for our most needy students should be of grave concern to all who desire equality from our education system, and indeed from our society. The “end of college” futurists presuppose that all students will equally benefit from increased access to online learning nodes and the self-paced credentialing they promise. I suspect the opposite will occur: if this world comes to be, those conditions will end up exacerbating rather than mitigating inequality, as the most well-off and the most advantaged students — the ones who have had years of encouragement and support, years of positive reinforcement to buffer their motivation, and yes, the interested hand of a parent to help work through that online module — distance themselves further from those who need the most support. To date, we don’t have any reason to believe that the kind of attentive teaching that correlates with student achievement gains can be replicated in a virtual setting, to say nothing of the gaping disparities in Internet access observable along lines of race and class.
If we have learned anything from the decades of research in both K-12 and higher education, it’s that student success depends above all else on the support of great educators and mentors. We know, for example, that it is not course-taking, class size, or a particular curriculum that has the biggest impact on student achievement, but rather one’s exposure to an effective teacher.
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The “end of college” futurists’ predictions betray a provincial view of higher education that once again looks to the top institutions (the kinds paraded on Coursera) as the salve for all of America’s educational woes. This over-attention to the top schools diverts policy energy away from reckoning with the diversity of postsecondary experiences in America. If we are truly interested in solving the inequities of our country’s education system, our policy solution can’t simply be turning to a handful of rock star professors at the top universities and directing our needy students to tune into their video lectures. Instead, we have to focus on how to fortify resource allocations and improve pedagogy at the middle- and lower-tier postsecondary institutions, where some 86 percent of our nation’s students attend.
Moreover, MOOCs don’t solve the quality problem in higher ed. As it stands, there exists no definitive evidence that virtual instruction, even by a rock star teacher (which isn’t the same as a great teacher), is better than face-to-face delivery — for any kind of learner. As online credentialing positions itself to be the disruptive force it’s predicted to be, we simply don’t know yet whether that will be a good thing for improving the overall excellence of the American education system. And once we start talking about excellence in education, we must invariably return to the topic of equity, because the pathway to accessing our most “excellent” institutions is riddled with locks, jams, and walled-offed zip codes all throughout the leaky pipeline of our (pre) kindergarten-to-postsecondary system. It is therefore disingenuous to talk about how online education will improve this system without talking about how to solve the structures of inequality that predispose some to succeed in an online MIT course while others struggle to secure an Internet connection.
The fact is that the vast majority of our nation’s would-be college graduates are funneled into under-resourced technical schools, community colleges, and lower-tier public universities where they languish, unsupported and unlikely to graduate. Depending on the institution, up to 60 percent of these students entering for the first time do not graduate within six years. Will a freer, more open marketplace for digital credentials change those odds? Will it dissolve the cruel fate of geography and its stratifying effects on those born into impoverished zip codes, where too many public schools, despite their efforts, can only offer a slippery ladder with which to clamber into the middle class?
I believe that the futurists are on to something about the imminent shakeup in higher education. Exactly what that will look like, and how prominent a role online learning will play in that revolution, remains to be seen. But unless we devise policies intended to support all learners, inequality will reign at the expense of the students who need American higher education to lift them up the most.
Thomas Gibney is the Program Manager for Student Success at the Tennessee Department of Education, Division of College & Career Readiness.