The Real Trouble With Online Higher Ed

Ann McClure's picture

The past few weeks have seen twists and turns in the ongoing debate about the quality and worth of online learning, and its role in the future of higher ed. On Jan. 17, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the value of higher education, predicting financial problems for universities and colleges. A few days earlier, schools in California announced that students can take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for university credit. Last weekend, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lauded MOOCsas the democratizing revolution we've been waiting for. The three major companies providing free online learning -- Coursera, Udacity and edX -- were jubilantly present at Davos. Online university enrollments are on the rise, according to a new industry report, even as overall college enrollments declined.

What are we to make of it all -- is the revolution here? Pundits on the left proclaim the meteoric rise of online learning and declining enrollments the harbingers of a "bust" in higher education. Pundits on the right laud the bust and encourage students to head straight into entrepreneurship. But education pundits of all stripes are attempting to solve the wrong problem. The problem isn't too many Bachelor's diplomas or too many online courses. The problem is the current system's failure to develop essential competences in a cost-effective way.

Students who were underprepared in high school, or who are not independent academic learners, need this problem solved the most. Colleges and universities need to help these students, and others, learn quantitative reasoning so they can make good decisions about mortgages or credit cards. They need to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to get better jobs. Online learning can help solve this problem, but not by following the common models.

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