The perils and promise of online learning.
Moreover, online learning may lend itself more readily to certain subjects, particularly those in which there is only one right answer. As Bowen cautions, the study of the Carnegie Mellon class found positive outcomes in the instruction of statistics; an online course in Herman Melville might not produce comparable results. Colleges are not simply in the business of imparting skills; they also want to provoke students into contemplating deeper questions about what constitutes a fulfilling life. A smartphone has the answers to all the questions, Gardner says, “except the most important ones.”
Finally, the equity implications of online learning are less clear than proponents would suggest. Indeed, there may be parallels between today’s embrace of online learning and the nation’s earlier foray into community college education. In the twentieth century, there was enormous enthusiasm for the community college model, which was envisioned as a cheaper way of providing education to larger numbers of students. There is no doubt that community colleges greatly expanded access, providing low-income and working-class students with new opportunities for convenient classes at more affordable prices than distant four-year residential colleges. But there were trade-offs as well, as Bowen himself has vividly documented. Not living on campus, where “lateral learning” can take place between students, and being taught by less expensive adjunct professors, has reduced learning outcomes. Bowen’s ground-breaking work on “under-matching” finds that controlling for incoming preparation levels, completion rates are much lower for students who attend less selective colleges with fewer resources. He also finds evidence to suggest that honors college settings “that encourage close contact among students and between students and faculty members” lead to improved completion rates.
Over time, community colleges have become increasingly the province of the poor. Whereas wealthy students outnumber low-income students by fourteen to one at selective four-year colleges, low-income students outnumber wealthy students by two to one at community colleges. In our stratified system, students who have on average the least preparation are the most vulnerable and need the greatest attention—and they receive the fewest resources.
Online learning is coming to higher education one way or the other, and, like community colleges, has the exciting potential to expand opportunities. Bowen provides some important cautions: online learning needs to be coupled with face-to-face encounters, and certain disciplines may never fully lend themselves to the digital revolution. But with all the hype, there is a danger that his caveats will be forgotten and that online learning will become a tempting way to educate low-income students on the cheap. In the coming years, one worries whether cyberspace will become the new place where the students who need the most once again get the least.
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