A recent story on Utah Public Radio reports that the Utah System of Higher Education is projecting an increase of 50,000 additional college students in Utah over the next ten years. That’s huge. And the immediately attractive response – “More online education!” – is not the way to go.
Let me be straight: for the most part, online education stinks. Sometimes, when you need specific training for a narrow subject – like how to build a website, or fill out a tax return – it’s just fine. But when it comes to broader or more complicated subjects and problems, online education is the wrong medium. It’s like doing surgery over the telephone.
People who reach for it as a cheap way to handle tens of thousands of students have a mistaken model of higher education. They adhere to “the bucket model”: student has empty bucket – comes to knowledge resource – gets bucket filled. But most things worth learning, of course, are far more complicated than this. What are the various ways of framing this problem? How might each frame limit the solutions we’re likely to see? What is a new way of looking at it? How do you weigh out the advantages and disadvantages of the possible solutions? These are the sorts of questions we want our future leaders to be raising, since the problems they are going to face will not be getting any easier.
These are the sorts of questions we find across all departments and majors in a university, and there are two ways of handling them online. First, and most usual, they can be simply ignored, and everyone can just pretend that some real education has taken place. Second, a truly dedicated online instructor can provide online chats, inventive exercises, and detailed assignments that get at these questions – but then the “efficiency” that made online instruction attractive in the first place goes right out the window. Such a high-quality online course will not serve any more students than a face-to-face course would – and, arguably, it would just be easier to sit the students in a room and get the thing done.
From the point of view of most students, the appeal of online education is that you can take it at your own pace – that is, you can cram it all into a week or two of binge quiz-taking, and it’s far easier than taking the class “for real.” (This I hear from the students themselves.) So long as the farce awards university credit, it’s a win/win for everyone: the student gets more (credit) for less (work), and the university gets more (tuition) for less (expense). But ask yourself whether university education comes by way of binge quiz-taking, and the ruse reveals itself.
There’s no cheap, technological “silver bullet” to accommodate 50,000 more students. Universities need to build classrooms, hire faculty, and do it right.