Good. Let’s dive in.
By the nature of the work I do on for-profit colleges, I also closely follow online education. For many years the two have been conflated and in many important ways that conflation continues in both research and the greater cultural imagination. While for-profits did adopt and leverage online technology better, earlier, and faster than traditional universities, the two are not one and the same. A large percentage of for-profit students attend brick and mortar campuses and many traditional college students take courses online. The delivery method should not be confused for the institutional type.
Having said that, traditional colleges seem to think that the reason profit-motivated education works is because it is online. “Get us ‘puters, STAT” seems to be the overwhelming institutional response. There is nothing inherently wrong with more computers, using technology smartly, or expanding one’s educational reach. But it is a problem when such initiatives are positioned as “game changers” that are going to “reshape higher education as we know it” by producing “democratic knowledge” that “makes elite education available to everyone“!
It’s just the internet people, calm down.
And while you’re calming down let me explore the reasons why the narrative, as currently being sold (and sold is the operative word), is problematic.
Technology is great. However, it can be easy to forget when you live in a world of high iPad concentration that not everyone in this country has reliable access to the high speed internet that makes these cool devices and systems so, well, cool.
Much of rural America still struggles with access to broadband internet. If there is a racial/ethnic/class divide in educational access, there is also a serious a rural/urban divide. In eastern North Carolina, where my family is from, it is not at all uncommon for a family or neighbors to share the expense of a satellite dish because the infrastructure for cable is not there. In these communities libraries are still critical to what Internet access there is. And in the current fiscal environment libraries are facing budget cuts that greatly compromise even this limited means of access. In their place are Internet Cafes which are springing up in poor communities (both rural and urban). These pay-for-Internet convenience stores advertise themselves as 24 hour digital portals when, in reality, most of the computers in them are only good for accessing video poker sites, not college applications.
My mother recently ventured into one thinking it was a cool new way to “internet” (she uses it as a verb). She found herself being berated by a South Asian proprietor to not navigate to any websites but the gaming sites bookmarked in the browser. Doing so slows down the rapid blackjack hits for other users.
That’s the way the other half internets.
So, to take advantage of the free courses being offered by such elite institutions as Duke University and Carnegie Mellon it is going to help if you are not rural, not in a blighted urban district, and have the financial means to pay for broadband internet. It will also matter that you have the hardware that makes navigating those sites a useful interaction.
And there’s our next rub.
Not all internet is created equal and neither are all user platforms created equal.
Visit Carnegie Mellon’s MOOC site (something I do several times a week as I’m brushing up on my regression skills) and you see a screen like this:
For a fully functional experience I have a wireless mouse, a ten key pad attachment, and a wide screen macbook pro. I am lucky that I have such things because if I relied upon my iPhone (or an android or a motorola, etc.) to access this website the functionality would be lost.
According to Pew Research about 20 percent of high-school dropouts use only a cell phone for wireless access, and 17 percent of them making less than $30,000 per year do the same. Black laptop usage is up to 51 percent but blacks, especially lower income blacks, are more likely to engage the internet with a cellphone than a laptop or a desktop.
How does online learning work for those who use the internet in ways not conducive to the online learning format? I suggest, not very well.
There is reason to believe that Coursera and MOOCs will prod the notoriously slow to innovate traditional college sector into the 1990s with all this new emailing and interneting. But in 2012 the needs are less about being online than being where the people are.
And right now the people who would benefit most from online learning are not necessarily where these programs are moving.
That means really ambitious autodidacts — the kind who have long benefited most from innovative education models — will take advantage of MOOCs to become, well, more autodidact-ish. Already privileged elite students with broadband, iPads, macbooks, and time (the greatest luxury of all) will simply have more spaces in which to be privileged and elite.
But it is not the end of higher education as we know it or the great answer to democratic learning. It’s not even particularly innovative. It is performing innovation in the way that removing our belts at airport security is performing security.
The real innovation will come when elite education can be downloaded without a credit card to a cheap tablet bought at Family Dollar by a kid in rural America who uses it to learn how to apply for college which is still, it turns out, the best bet for the social capital that fuels upward mobility.