On Political Books

May/ June 2013 Profs in the Cloud

The perils and promise of online learning.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

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.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience: Buy from Amazon.com.

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."


  • Mike on May 31, 2013 9:20 AM:

    I teach mathematics at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. Our precalculus courses are self-paced: students use on online text and do mastery drills online, but must pass all of the proctored exams before the end of the term to pass the course. They can attend optional lectures and have access to tutors if they have questions. These students seem to do as well as students in traditional classes, but most of them do not take calculus. In my upper-level courses ( calculus, linear algebra, topology, game theory, etc.) I poll my students about whether or not they believe the course could be taught online and their responses (given anonymously) are almost 100% in the negative. Their comments are telling: they do not believe they could learn higher-level mathematical reasoning simply by reading the text or viewing a lecture; they need the professor there to answer their questions at the juncture of a difficult computation or proof, or to have a discussion that addresses the particular concerns they have at that moment. As the guy at the blackboard I have to be able to look at their expressions and body language in order to sense when they might be getting lost, or to tell whether or not my answers to their questions were adequate to bring them to understanding. I do not believe that higher-order thinking - even in a subject with only "one correct answer" - can be taught in any but a face-to- face setting.