Online Courses Aren’t the Great Equalizer For Education

Online courses have been hailed as the way to decrease the education gap. By making it possible for students to do the coursework anywhere and at the times that best suit them, those whose jobs and family responsibilities prevent them from attending classes on an actual college campus can still work towards a degree.

A new study from Columbia University has found that online courses could actually widen the achievement gap among students. Researchers looked at 500,000 online courses taken by more than 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington state and found that students from groups that tend to struggle in traditional classrooms also did so in online courses.

That is, students who report success in online courses are students who are already more likely to do well in school, wherever, however they take courses.

Even more, the researchers found that, overall, students who take online courses are less likely to earn a degree. Those who already struggle more to finish college – African-American students, male students, younger students and students with lower grade-point averages — are “falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses,” says one of the study’s authors, Shanna Smith Jaggars to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Online courses could actually be “weakening — not strengthening — education equality.”

There Are Still Plenty of Benefits From Online Courses

Jaggars emphasizes that online learning should not be written off. The difference between taking an online course and a “bricks and mortar” one was marginal for female students and those who are higher-performing.

Kathy B. Enger, director of the Northern Lights Library Network and long-time online educator, emphasizes that not being in a face-to-face classroom can have huge benefits for minority students who may refrain from speaking up in class due to “‘microaggression,’ such as a snicker or a rolling of the eyes, from a predominantly white classroom.” Online courses can also be essential for students with disabilities. A student with Asperger’s Syndrome might be relieved to know coursework can be completed without having to worry about social interactions.

But Professors Have To Learn How To Teach Them

The Columbia study suggests that one way improve online courses would be to screen students who take them and only allow those who are higher-performing take them — but that’s a strategy that does not really address the reasons some demographics of students do not perform as well.

Enger emphasizes that, if students are struggling in online courses, “it’s generally because the professor teaching the course is not reaching out in the right ways.” Teaching an online course places different demands on a professor. Written assignments, participation in online discussions and emailing the instructors are essential but could be a real hurdle for a student who already struggles to communicate in writing.

Teaching an online course is not the same as teaching a traditional one, as Richard A. McKenzie, the professor of a MOOC (massive open online course) offered through the University of California at Irvine by the company Coursera, recently found. As the course, “Microeconomics for Managers,” was entering its fifth week, McKenzie, an emeritus professor of enterprise and society at the university’s business school, left the course “because of disagreements over how to best conduct” it.

The course is continuing without McKenzie and one of Coursera’s founders, Daphne Koller, said that McKenzie had not been “removed” from a course. Gary Matkin, the dean for distance education at Irvine, said in the Chronicle for Higher Education that McKenzie was unwilling to “loosen his grip on students” whom he did not think were performing well. Specifically, McKenzie felt that “uninformed or superfluous responses to the questions posed in the discussion forums hobbled the serious students in their learning.” The professor was objecting to some of the very (bad and good) features of MOOCs, that some of those enrolled were committed to taking the course as a “real” college course and doing all the work, versus those who were simply “dipping in.”

In response to students who criticized him for assigning too much work, McKenzie told them that “I will not give on standards and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with.” What’s the point of taking a course unless you’re really learning the material?

Online courses are here to stay. But exactly what sort of education they can provide remains to be seen.


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.about a year ago

I agree. You have made the nice blogs with the great info in the contents.
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Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown1 years ago

Your blogs and every other content are thus interesting and helpful it makes me return back again.

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Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Real teachers can't be replaced

Fred D.
Fred De Sena4 years ago

Synchronous online instruction needs to be part of the discussion as well. Most oversimplify a discussion of online learning by addressing blended and asynchronous only. Synchronous online instruction allows for critical discourse in the moment. Asynchronous emphasizes reflection and synchronous emphasizes expression -- both are necessary for academic success and growth.

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance4 years ago

I have a diploma in business management and I did much of it by distance learning. But distance learning is not for everyone to say the least. The student must be organised, disciplined, and stay on track. The success or failure of a student rests on these points in addition to the student's preferred method of learning, and the professor's skill at teaching. For me, this was a must because I was being transfered from city to city all the time. Most recently, I completed the BC Mortgage advisor's course online which is a lot of math, law, and ethics.

Online courses are not for everyone.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown4 years ago

I forgot to mark the "get comment replies via email" box so I am posting again (sorry).

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown4 years ago

I am a college professor and I received one of my graduate degrees from an "online" program. Keep in mind, the school I received it from was a excellent and fully acredited university. The professors for the course were all regular professors in the field (many of them published authors whose work I was familiar with).

It was an excellent learning experience, but it was graduate work, which is primarily research and writing (in that respect online learning is generally a good fit with post-graduate study). Online learning can be an excellent experience, but it can never, in my opinion, take the place of the full college experience.

Heather Holland
Heather Holland4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

mary r.
Mary R4 years ago


E. J.
Past Member 4 years ago

As someone who has worked extensively in the post-secondary system, I can tell you online "education" is most inferior, with completion rates of 30 per cent. The courses/programs are cash cows, or rather revenue generating arms of an institution.

When you pay for post-secondary education at a traditional school, you are paying for the expertise and presence of the prof, the freedom to interact in real time with classmates, and the ability to work together to enhance knowledge. Learning in isolation is in no way the same.

Is there a difference between attending Yale or Harvard or any legitimate post-secondary institution vs. Phoenix University? I think so! So do employers, and so do any traditionally educated peers.