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Online Education No Substitute for the “Real” Thing?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A February 12, 2012 piece in the Tampa Bay Times by Eckerd College president Donald Eastman III entitled "Online education no substitute for the real thing," essentially attempts to relegate online learning to second-class citizen status, or worse – irrelevance.

Eastman is responding to President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address, in which he called out colleges and universities as a whole to curb the cost of higher education in order to make it more universally affordable and accessible. Eastman criticized the President’s call to action saying, "The U.S. Education Department has developed a mandate to reduce college costs by making online courses and part-time teachers mainstream elements of a college education. The secretary is right about one thing: These changes would save money. But they each also simplify and cheapen the intricacy and quality of first-rate undergraduate education."

This statement, coupled with the title of his piece, paints a clear picture of his disdain for online learning. A statement that begins to make sense when you consider that it comes from the president of a school that has been struggling to justify its own existence in the higher education landscape since the last century (Chronicle.com Aug. 18, 2000). While, as a graduate of and past employee at a top national liberal arts college, I have every bit of respect in the world for the liberal arts. However, I also have a great deal of respect for the democratizing potential of online instruction, the people who provide it, and the belief that education as a whole is overdue for a massive change.

There are several arguments to be made in support of online learning as a legitimate educational alternative to the F2F experience for some. The choice between brick-and-mortar education and online learning does not have to be a winner-take-all proposition.  First, however, I think it is important to unpack some of the suppositions surrounding Eastman’s argument against virtual learning.

The Hidden Agenda
Eastman makes many assertions in his argument that the only good education is a coddling, hand-holding, F2F one.  There are two general schools of thought regarding education as a whole – either it is or it is not a universally beneficial proposition, regardless of the venue. I am of the opinion that it is a benefit not only to every individual, but also to the society in which they live as a whole. The subtext behind Eastman’s article is that it is not. In fact, at the risk of putting words in his mouth, it seems as if higher learning is intended only for those who can pay to have their children pampered.

According to the article, "The majority of college undergraduates are young people, 18 to 24 years old, who are at least as engaged in learning to become adults as in learning particular subjects, and whose parents (who are mostly paying for their educations) are more concerned about whether they are learning how to be responsible young adults who make good decisions than whether they major in anthropology or physics or accounting." Later he adds that, "Most of them require personal, often individualized, attention to achieve their potential." (Eastman, 2012).

In addition, Eastman makes the assertions that colleges that cannot fill all their seats should close and that affordability is not the concern of the White House. This is a strange message coming from the president of a school that, until fairly recently was in danger of closing its doors, and is probably still in a precarious position. If online education becomes even more prevalent than it already is Eastman’s institution could potentially lose a sizeable chunk of the prospective students from which it is already forced to admit nearly 72% in order to "fill its seats" (USNews College Rankings). There is more to his argument than meets the eye.

Einstein Would Have Studied Online
The idea of subject matter being irrelevant, particularly at a liberal arts colleges prompted the question, What Albert Einstein have to say about that? For starters, he would note that everything in the universe is relative. The theory of special relativity can be explained as the idea that there is a variance in reality and the perception of reality based on an individual’s relative position in the universe.  Meaning simply that things actually are different depending on where you stand. So, while there certainly are a substantial number of students and their parents who see a benefit from having hands held by professors while strolling on a beach, learning nothing in particular except how to be good adults, there are quite likely even more who either do not need to have their hands held in order to become adults or who actually attend college – whether on campus or online – to learn something specific. The value of a college education for every student is relative to their position in the world and each one deserves to have the right to determine what the best match is for them – for some that is online learning.

For the individual who cannot afford the $35K annually to have their hands held while they mature, but who still wants to learn tangible skills and gain some knowledge that will benefit them in the pursuit of a modest career –perhaps one where $25K in student loans does still look daunting – being able to get a college degree online or at a community college for a fraction of the cost has great value. In this way, the cost and availability of a college education for everyone is the business to the White House. What better cause for a government than to help to ensure that all of its citizens are cared for as part of a collective enterprise bent on the good of the whole.

Rousseau Would Have Too
While I was actually paying attention to the course content during my time as an undergraduate I took a class on Political Philosophy and read an interesting book by a gentleman named Jean Jacques Rousseau called The Social Contract. It was an enlightening read and led to some heated debate in class over just what the role of government is in a civilized society. Here is how Rousseau boils down the idea of the social contract:

"Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."
(Rousseau, 1762)

We are all in this together. That’s what it means to be a society -a group of individuals with real differences, perspectives, and freedoms, who all deserve the same protections and opportunities provided by our inclusion in the larger entity. So while Eastman’s article may seem on its surface to be a piece which touts the virtues of the traditional campus experience, the underlying assumptions make it a much more diabolical, anti-social piece aimed at hampering the concept of education as a universal right and the truth that higher education as a relative proposition in which different individuals can find value in regardless of venue, even the 18-21 year-olds.

In tomorrow’s post I will explore some of the ways in which online learning can be a comparable, but distinct source of education to the on-campus experience.

 

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