Can Online Education Replace College?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The announcement on September 6, 2012 that the first transfer credit was granted for a Udacity course by Colorado State University is a significant moment for online education and the MOOC movement.  While MOOCs do not represent the culmination of e-learning – far from it, in fact – the beginning of acceptance for work done through them by mainstream universities, in addition to initiatives like the University of Wisconsin’s competency-based online degree program are opening doors that have previously been closed for online and informal learners.

This broader acceptance of a more diverse range of e-learning sources provides a sharp contrast to the recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece by David Youngberry, Why Online Education Won’t Replace College – Yet which presented five reasons that MOOC-based education is no real threat to higher ed. Can MOOCs replace traditional university learning? Probably not, but is there a chance that e-learning in general might? Here is a look at Youngberry’s five limitations of MOOCs and an examination of whether or not they apply to online higher education in general.

1. It’s too easy to cheat. "Make the class count for credit, or serve as the first step to a good job, and phantom forums and answer keys will follow. Despite our best efforts, the proliferation of cheating is higher education’s dirty little secret. Take away the classroom and you’ve made a bad situation much worse." (Youngberry)

Analysis: This may be naïve on my part, but I don’t believe that cheating is as rampant as this report makes it out to be. There seems to be very little actual benefit to cheating in online courses in the hopes of landing a good job based on stolen credentials. Employers are not stupid, they ask intelligent interview questions that are designed to determine how well-suited an individual is to perform the tasks for which they will be hired. If someone does not actually have the background they say they do, that becomes evident very quickly in an interview. While it may be easier to cheat in an online class, the incentive is not really there except for those students who are not going to benefit from their education anyway. In addition, most online programs either incorporate built-in plagiarism checkers into their systems or subscribe to checkers like Turnitin which have a very positive effect on deterring cheaters (Jocoy & DiBiase, 2006).

2. Star students can’t shine. "In traditional academe, I know my best students well enough to write recommendations describing their personalities and accomplishments in detail. Online anonymity results in references that mean virtually nothing. The best Udacity can offer is to pass on résumés of top students to interested employers. If just 1 percent of students in Udacity’s two courses were exceptional, that’s 900 recommendations to write. And none of them would be worth reading." (Youngberry)

Analysis: Some of the students who completed Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun’s initial online course at Stanford have already been hired based on their performance in the class because their excellence was acknowledged and their resumes were passed on to employers. In reality, because of some of the limitations of the online format, star students might be able to shine even more than they would in one key area-innovation. There are always avenues for the most creative students to shine, and figuring out how to do so within the constraints of an LMS or MOOC will be even more impressive than standing out in a FTF classroom.

3. Employers avoid weird people. "Firms hire workers to help execute their plans. They are generally not after radical thinkers who want to turn a company upside down with bizarre ideas. Those who have a problem with authority are to be avoided. To show they are good team players, interviewees are polite, agreeable, and wear the usual suit and tie. Getting an unconventional degree suggests you’re probably one of the usurpers who are more trouble than they are worth. MOOC’s are the nose rings of higher education." (Youngberry)

Analysis: At this point in the 21st century it really is not unusual at all for someone to be tech savvy, so it is not weird to learn online – it is weird not to. In fact, many of the best companies such as Google and Microsoft intentionally hire those who exhibit the traits of non-conformity. Employers recognize that thinking outside the box is a key skill for Information Age employees and will intentionally seek out those folks rather than shun them. Employers are, in fact specifically looking for employees with strong ICT literacy skills, and online learning is one way of demonstrating such proficiency.

4. Computers can’t grade everything. "MOOC’s are feasible because a program grades all assignments. This works fine for answers that easily translate to machine language, but a machine can’t grade an essay or a presentation. Papers are out of the question. But good communication is a valuable skill and one that’s difficult to master. Fortunately there is a glut of Ph.D.’s in the liberal arts who can pick up the teaching in this area." (Youngberry)

Analysis: While it is certainly true that computers can’t grade everything (right now), semantic web technology is soon to make that a thing of the past. Technologies like those employed by Pearson and Knewton are already capable of creating individualized education. Asking unique questions and evaluating the answers are not far behind. It is merely a matter of time before there is enough information available for technology to grade everything. Additionally, not all online courses are MOOCs. Some have actual instructors with reasonable student to teacher ratios.

5. Money can substitute for ability. "If college is cheap, students have a strong incentive to spend those savings on anything that can give them an edge over their fellow students. Students will hire tutors to help them on homework, and they will buy dishwashers to free up their day. To prevent too many people from acing the class, the class will have to get harder. The arms race will intensify—each student spending to get an edge over the other—until online education is no cheaper than traditional education." (Youngberry)

Analysis: Seldom does a "slippery slope" argument hold any actual water, and this point is no exception. Of course some people are going to try harder and be more financially able than others to maximize their educational potential. However, while tutoring is always an advantage, how many students who are just scraping by are going to spend every extra penny on their education? Even for those who do, individualized learning and adaptive technology will eventually push each student to their intellectual peak, particularly if learning is the goal of education rather than completing school in a set number of years. Ultimately, money cannot substitute for ability, and providing excellent educational options for everyone will eventually erase that misconception.

In the final assessment Youngberry is right, MOOCs will not replace traditional education by themselves. Education will change to adapt with technological innovation. It will have to, or as Youngberry predicts, it will vanish. In all likelihood, however, it will be replaced by a hybrid model that closely resembles the one that our lives already follow. Colleges and universities will stick around, and students will engage in a combination of online, adaptive, MOOC-based, and face-to-face learning that helps each one of them reach their unique potential.

Share your opinion about the future of online learning with me on Google+ or Twitter @drjwmarquis.