Too Much Enthusiasm for Computer College

The thing with online classes, according to an interesting new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Rob Jenkins, is that the courses often tend to be sort of bad. Or, at any rate, online might not really be the best way to learn some things. That doesn’t mean online course have to be bad, but let’s be honest about this situation:

At community colleges… many leaders have embraced online courses with an almost religious fervor. And we all know why. It’s not because anyone is seriously arguing that online classes are consistently better than the face-to-face versions. And it’s not even necessarily because students are clamoring for them (although they’re clearly popular in certain segments of the population, such as stay-at-home parents, people with full-time jobs, and deployed members of the armed forces). It’s because colleges can produce online courses much more cheaply while charging roughly the same tuition.

In other words, at many community colleges, online classes constitute the proverbial cash cow. And if you say anything about them—other than that we should offer more and more, forever and ever, virtual worlds without end, amen—then you will be branded as a heretic, ridiculed as a neo-Luddite, and shunned.

This is not the recipe for successful instruction. And this is perhaps why 70-75 percent of students enrolled in real classes successfully pass them while only 50 percent of students enrolled online do so. Something about this just isn’t working.

The problem, according to Jenkins, is that some courses just don’t work very well online. It doesn’t make sense to teach automotive repair, furniture making, brain surgery, most forms of nursing, or anything involving chemistry online. But a lot of things kind of work online.

For students who aren’t able to attend college in the traditional way, “good enough” can be a godsend. But that doesn’t mean that all students, or any student who wants to, should take online courses. Our collective failure to recognize that fundamental reality is primarily responsible for the high failure rates we see in online courses.

“I don’t know why the degree from an online program would be worthless, or significantly inferior to what you get from in-person studies,” one commenter wrote recently in response to something I wrote. “Am I missing something?”

He is missing something. It’s not so much that an online program is by definition significantly inferior, it’s just that an online experience sometimes just isn’t as informative as a real one.

That’s why just offering online courses to everyone to try and increase college attendance won’t work; because sometimes you just can do it online. And sometimes you can do it online, but it’s hard to do it very well.

Daniel Luzer

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