When people talk about online education, they often discuss how it can bring more people higher education. After all, plenty of people go to college the traditional way. Online college, however, helps people who can’t access college on a normal timeframe—either because of time commitments or finances—get an education.

As Bill Gates said last year:

Another element involves presenting information in an interactive form, which can be used to find out what a student knows and doesn’t know. This makes it possible to tailor the learning session to the individual student. Think about what happens to students who get into community college but are told to take remedial math because their test scores are below a cutoff level. The students have to spend time on the things they already know and don’t get to focus on the areas they are confused about. They get very little positive reinforcement from sitting in lectures. Most kids who are put into remedial math drop out before they ever get a degree because it is such a discouraging experience for them.

Online education, in effect, can take off where other education has failed. But according to an article by Dan McFeely in the Indianapolis Star, online courses seems to be replacing real courses, even at traditional college:

More than 4.6 million students took at least one online class two years ago, a 17 percent increase from the previous year, according to the most recent survey by the Sloan Consortium, which monitors online education.

Online enrollment grew from barely 10 percent of total enrollment in 2002 to 25 percent in 2008. It’s a trend that is not likely to be reversed.

According to the article, even students at Purdue University and Indiana University are taking courses online. Professors, however, seem a little skeptical of the courses.

Students love the flexibility of an online class. Colleges love earning the tuition dollars without having to build new classrooms. And professors are starting to come around to the reality of an online world.

Or, well, maybe they’re just giving up. As sociology Professor Allen Martin explains, “the dropout rate is enormous, and there is an enormous amount of cheating that goes on. It just doesn’t work very well.” But professors, it seems, will teach online courses if that’s all that’s available.

It doesn’t seem that online courses are really helping to expand learning so much as they’re just replacing existing courses with a new, and arguably less effective, method of delivery.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer