A Critique of Online Education


“Online Education is the future, or, another reason the future will suck:”

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

The real benefit, though, is that it will let more people go to college because everything will be cheaper. The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn’t. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument). Despite spreading like wildfire in the last decade – from dedicated online schools like University of Phoenix to the best (and worst) brick-and-mortar schools – the price of higher education only increases. So who benefits from replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts if not the students? If students aren’t getting cheaper or better education from online courses, why are colleges so eager to establish them? The answer, as anyone on this side of the looking glass knows, is that it’s cheaper – for the university

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7 thoughts on “A Critique of Online Education

  1. Ignoring all the inflammatory rhetoric that makes the Gin and Tacos piece a good blog post if nothing else, I focus on this bit:

    “most of these democratizations involve me getting paid $1000 per course for 16 weeks of work without benefits or any commitment beyond semester-to-semester temp labor. Would that this transition in academia from stable, albeit not particularly highly paid, tenured employment to the just-in-time Labor Ready model that is replacing real faculty with adjuncts/part timers be forced upon us without the patronizing mantra about how this is all for the good of the students.”

    Let’s presume that this guy actually is a good teacher, maybe even as good as the higher-priced tenured profs. Let’s say that a typical college student takes 4 courses per semester, and that a typical course enrolls 40 students. So at this guy’s teaching price, 4 courses taught by adjuncts would cost $4,000 per semester; divide by 40 students = $100 per student per semester for tuition. Double it; hell, increase it by a factor of 10, and at current levels of state funding every student could receive a free college education. On-line, lecture, discussion, whatever — teacher’s choice.

  2. ktismatics is exactly right. My students and I talk about this a lot in class. Both of us are getting ripped off. The sticker price for one of my classes is $4,400. When you factor in grands and scholarships the average student is paying about $2,800 to take one of my classes. I get paid $3,300 to teach the class (with 17 students).

    Why can’t we just go across the street and negotiate our own terms? All the education is the same, all the actual teaching and learning is exactly the same.

    I do worry that the move towards on-line courses is a way to make the university even more temp-based, even lower pay for faculty (you can teach in your apartment, you don’t even need to wear pants!). But I also think that there are opportunities to do better as well.

    I’m not sure how many undergrads can put together their own course of study, but I can and I am. I’ve started my own M.Phil program and I’m negotiating tuition with different faculty. It’s just for fun, I’ve got no career ambitions in philosophy, but I’ve always wished I could study it.

    The key point of attack needs to be accreditation. So long as universities have a monopoly on notarizing your brain they can charge what they want for their brand. But if we can create our own schools that are just as high quality, where teachers get paid more and it costs less for tuition, then why be so down on the idea. Can’t we at least try it before we declare it a failure?

  3. I like these ideas, Thomas. I also see from your blog that you’re interested in experimental post-secondary schools. Have you learned and/or taught in any of them?

    The bachelor’s degree is far from a standardized product. It would seem possible for experts holding advanced degrees across an array of disciplines to define criteria for a bachelor’s equivalent. The trick would be to get employers and grad schools to recognize the equivalency, without the stigma so often attached to the GED.

  4. I’m an active participant in The Art School in the Art School.

    My latest idea is to get a friend to create an accreditation agency and fully accredit my one person school. A school needs to be accredited, but no one accredits the accreditation agencies so why not just start one yourself?

  5. I’m not an educator but a compulsive user of their products.

    I just wanted to point out the irony that this discussion has gone from a criticism of the comercialization of education to a near declaration of Friedman economic theory. I’m value neutral on that but I wonder if they really have dragged the state into the bath and drowned it.

  6. Good point. I thought we were exploring something more like collective anarcho-syndicalism until Thomas’ one-person-school fragmentation grenade blew it out of the bathwater.

  7. I see it as a series of collaborations, some of which could happen horizontally. I’m all for anarcho-syndicalist schools. But as such it would be full of independent projects. My “one-person-school” is just the collection of my interests. I hope it will overlap with a lot of other peoples interests and that we will be able to help each other out.

    For my thesis, I’m thinking of making an online class in the form of a series of lectures on Vimeo or YouTube that other people could then watch collaborate with me on their own projects.

    I think the main key is to make sure that this kind of education is recognized as real education. This is why I think accreditation needs to be fully thought through. We either need to undermine accreditation, or find a way to accredit what we are doing. I think that the second has more promise for the time being. Maybe after a few years, though, accreditation will be eroded to such a degree that we can find other ways to recognize education.

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