Will Free Online College Courses Actually Widen The Socio-Educational Gap?

from the mmm-probably-not dept

While we recently discussed how licensing schemes can make the intersection of the internet and education very expensive and complex, there's also been some news recently going in the opposite direction. Coursera, a company that partners with colleges to provide free online courses, recently announced that it has expanded its partnerships to include several top-tier schools, such as Princeton, Duke, and Johns Hopkins. Meanwhile, MIT, Berkley, and Harvard announced that they are going to start a similar program at their schools called edX. The goals for both of these groups is to democratize higher education, opening the doors of social progress through the power of the internet and online courses.

And yet some would argue that the opposite will occur. Take, for instance, Noliwe M. Rooks, associate professor at Cornell and author of several books. Contributing to Time, she argues that online courses will have the opposite effect and actually widen the socio-educational gap between the rich and poor, and also along racial lines. I think such a theory is horribly myopic, but let's take a look.

Despite near universal enthusiasm for such projects, it’s important to take a few steps back. First, although the content is free now, it’s unlikely that it will remain that way for long. According to an analysis of one of Coursera’s contracts, both the company and the schools plan to make a profit — they just haven’t figured out the best way to do that yet.

A couple of problems here. First, while the industries are by no means fully analogous, I imagine that there were people years back who said the exact same thing about Google's search business. Or YouTube's video business. You'll note that both remain free to users to this day. Perhaps so shall Coursera. But, secondly, even the link Rooks provides to demonstrate her fear that students will eventually be charged doesn't really do that at all. The team at Coursera is currently brainstorming ways to monetize the business, but charging for what the company is calling course-completion “certificates” is only one idea. They've also discussed corporate sponsorship and advertising-supported monetization. The point is that charging for courses isn't some forgone conclusion and, whatever these certificates would cost, the investment on the part of the student would still be a far cry from what it costs to attend a university these days. But then Rooks goes on to make what are her two key points. The first is that online education isn't as effective as the classroom experience.

In terms of learning on the college level, the Department of Education looked at thousands of research studies from 1996 to 2008 and found that in higher education, students rarely learned as much from online courses as they did in traditional classes. In fact, the report found that the biggest benefit of online instruction came from a blended learning environment that combined technology with traditional methods, but warned that the uptick had more to do with the increased amount of individualized instruction students got in that environment, not the presence of technology. For all but the brightest, the more time students spend with traditional instruction, the better they seem to do.

It would be very easy at this point for the reader of Rooks's piece to see a fork in the road, where one must choose to either agree that online education is inferior or disagree and dismiss her argument. I'll do neither, because the question is moot. Remember that we're talking about the impact this is going to have on the socio-educational gap, not on the average student. Looking at it from that perspective, the effectiveness of free online education at Princeton (or any other school) compared with the effectiveness of in-classroom education at that same school is of no meaning whatsoever. The comparison to be made is between the effectiveness of free online education at Princeton (or any other school) versus not being able to afford an education at that same school at all. When viewed in its proper context, I can't see how anyone could argue that these free courses will do anything besides close the socio-educational gap.

And, finally, we have the argument that this will chiefly benefit both rich and white communities:

Supporters of online learning say that all anyone needs to access a great education is a stable Internet connection. But only 35% of households earning less than $25,000 have broadband access to the Internet, compared with 94% of households with income in excess of $100,000. In addition, according to the 2010 Pew Report on Mobile Access, only half of black and Latino homes have Internet connections at all, compared with almost 65% of white households. Perhaps most significant, many blacks and Latinos primarily use their cell phones to access the Internet, a much more expensive and less-than-ideal method for taking part in online education. In short, the explosion of this type of educational instruction, though free now, may leave behind the students who need education the most.

Again, it would be very easy for the reader at this point to pick a side, either believing Rooks's numbers or not and drawing a conclusion. I won't, because no matter where those numbers are right now, they are not static. I would argue that anyone believing that wider adoption of internet connections and greater reliability aren't only going to increase as time goes on doesn't know what they're talking about. So, even if there is an “internet gap” of sorts today, be it along racial or economic borders, that's only going to decrease. Given that Coursera just started up, drawing the conclusion that it, and future companies like it, are going to help widen the socio-education gap seems rather odd.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Will Free Online College Courses Actually Widen The Socio-Educational Gap?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Unintended consequences

While I’m definitely in favor of people understanding the way things work in the world around them, widespread easy access to higher education has had some devastating unintended consequences over the last few decades: a college degree is the new high school degree. It’s become enough of a problem to have spawned a term to describe it: “eduflation.” (Seriously. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

When anyone can easily get a college degree, suddenly everyone is expected to have one. This both makes it harder for people without a degree to find a job that they would otherwise be qualified for, and devalues the degrees of people who *do* get them. It also contributes to the debt crisis by requiring millions of students to take out loans that they really can’t afford just so they’ll be able to get a job someday so that they’ll be able to spend decades paying those loans back.

So when people start talking about ways to make college education more widely available, we need to take it with a grain of salt. Let’s get our priorities straight and find a solution to the eduflation problem first, please?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Unintended consequences

You raise an interesting point. A degree today is equivalent to a high school diploma in the 1950-60’s. In that era, a college degree truly unlocked the door to success. Today, it takes either a master’s or a highly specialized BA/BS such as accounting, computer science, engineering, etc.

Though I’m not sure “eduflation” is the root cause. Since we abandoned manufacturing, which provided millions of good middle-class jobs and simultaneous witnessed the decline of unions, the emerging service/information economy needs more literate, better trained workers. Simultaneously, we see a stratification where there are disappearing middle income jobs and growing high income/specialty jobs along with an explosion of low wage service jobs. The competition for dwindling numbers of middle income jobs seems to have spawned a higher level of competition and aspirants (and those hiring) view a degree as minimum qualification for any job that pays a living wage. It is unfortunate the cost of higher education is beyond many families. I think these types of online education programs benefit anyone interested in learning and it is hard to imagine any downside.

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Unintended consequences

Other reasons a Bachelors degree has replaced a high school Diploma:

1: It’s harder to get a drivers license from the DMV than to get a high school diploma.

2: Many companies are using a bachelors degree as a psuedo background and reference check. It is cheaper than an actual background check and works as an great filter. It demonstrates a certain level of ability to see something through.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Unintended consequences

As Mike points out several times: It is not about competing with existing education. It is all about spreading some basic informations to everyone wanting to listen.

The fearmongering in this case is still unfounded. Without sufficient certification these programs will not contribute any inflation.

Erick (profile) says:

Re: Unintended consequences

I teach at a community college (and was an adjunct at three others before getting a full-time position) and there is so much grade inflation and “pass them anyway” that at least a few schools are starting to react to what is becoming perceived as a completely worthless degree. Also, you used to be able to get a position as a professor at a community college with a Masters degree but those, too, have gotten a bit easy so now you need either two Masters or a doctorate to compete for those jobs. Schools can devise new ways to make courses easier or simply pass anyone who pays the tuition but they they can’t act surprised when their degrees come to be viewed as not quite worth the paper on which they are printed.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Perhaps most significant, many blacks and Latinos primarily use their cell phones to access the Internet, a much more expensive and less-than-ideal method for taking part in online education.”

So libraries don’t exist where Ms. Rooks lives? Pretty sure they still provide free internet access, especially when you are studying, oh and supplemental material called books. There are thousand of them, for almost every subject.

Though Tim it is odd you missed the glaring point. She writes books. She sells books, online classes do not need physical books when you can just have a webpage of them. She is akin to an owner of a mortuary encouraging people to not wear seat belts because less dead people means less money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Does she even know basic math?


The comparison should be between a cheap Walmart laptop and $40 a month internet subscription, versus thousands of dollars a semester to attend an average university.

It sounds awfully like someone has a job they’d like to protect. Don’t worry Ms. Rooks! If you really feel your teaching gig is threatened, I’m sure your ability to spin a fallacious argument will impress whoever does the hiring at the RIAA.

Zakida Paul says:

I have said for years that degrees are largely worthless to employers who constantly complain that college graduates are coming out of University lacking the basic skills they want to see. I am a huge supporter of encouraging more employers to offer apprenticeships and encouraging more school leavers to take up these apprenticeships instead of going to University.

I have always believed that we learn far more ‘on the job’ than sitting in a classroom and I know many people who are evidence of this. People who left school at 15/16 went into an apprenticeship and are now earning a good living. People who have friends who went to University, got a degree and are now working on supermarket checkouts.

Anonymous Coward says:

So, let me get this straight; providing the opportunity for free learning will widen the socio-educational gap. By what means? Allowing those w/o the funds to be exposed to knowledge? I cannot buy into that. When I was young they said if you didn’t have a college education you would be left behind. These days it is pretty much meaningless unless you are a scientist or an MBA. I still believe one should try to learn something new every day and this is a great way to do it.

Digitalistically Speaking (profile) says:

Affordable college

Once each year High schools unleash a torrent of hormone laden teenagers into a world they’re ill equipped to handle. Many go on to college where they enroll into a four year nonstop Party with a $40,000 per year cover charge. The majority of them will arrive at class stoned or drunk or hung over and sleep thru most of their classes or just not show up. Instead of focusing on learning they focus on developing friendships and contacts and sports heroes. A few will not join the party and will pay attention and actually learn something.
How many college graduates do you know that are incompetent in their jobs or just plain unqualified.Lots I bet.(Hint:The entertainment industry)
For those that cannot afford the cost of an “eduflated” 4 yr degree, a free online degree is the way to go.
If a person is motivated and disciplined enough to study on their own and earn a degree from Stanford or Harvard, that’s the person I want to hire.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am saddened that Noliwe M. Rooks, “associate professor at Cornell and author of several books” is acting as a Gatekeeper. Correction, what really saddens me is that anyone is standing in the way of education.

Who would most likely attend these courses? I doubt it would be people that are able to attend these colleges in person. What I do imagine is people that want to learn, people that can’t find the time to drive out and attend a lecture – or take time off just to find that the teacher or professor couldn’t make it.

An even if there is an end pay wall for a certificate of completion, an otherwise free service that allows people to learn? A service held by various colleges to expand higher education? A service that could help some people get back towards working on a degree that life got in the way of – are these not worthwhile goals, the betterment of ourselves!?

Those that are standing in the way of expanding human knowledge like the gatekeepers at universities and the like should have their teaching certificates revoked.

As an aside,

I am certain many of those that follow various internet funny pages, meme-sites and aggregator sites like Reddit have seen what rampant, well ‘stupidity’ is the term I’d like to use but ‘lack of education’ seems to fit the bill more, there is online. Can anyone not say that a program like this wont do at least some good? (In mind as I write this, is the twitter pages exclaiming disbelief that the Olympics were 3000 years old, since it was only 2012.)

Ben Broke says:

All I have is this lousy t-shirt.

When I was earning less than $25k/yr my priority was on having a stable internet connection. It was my phone, it was my entertainment, and it was my lifeline to my family on the other side of the country. ALL of that aside – the internet allowed me to reach out to prospective employers and improve my financial outlook in a way that cannot be matched. Why more poor people don’t put more priority on an internet connection I will never understand.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

An education is already free

As Frank Zappa said, “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

A bit too glib, but not without truth. In every software company I’ve worked with or for, the standard hiring practice is to give a competency test. Having a degree, while not without value, has never been the biggest factor in the hiring decision. Ability, knowledge, and experience (not necessarily professional experience) is.

Joshua Ben-Ami says:


Having recently looked a Coursera’s curricula many of the courses give certification upon successful completion, however I have yet to find any that will be accepted (even by the school provider) for actual credit. This despite the great You Tube presentation on the purpose and scope of the creation for this platform.
Sadly much of society refuses to accept knowledge and ability without a piece of paper stating the capabilities, real or imagined. That noted the “paid” courses offered on line currently have yet to offer any “free” courses of any true scholastic value toward career advancement.
The excitement surrounding Coursera initially had a great emphasis on creditable course work on-line for free.
End result without revenue generation or grant funding the concept is beyond reasonable expectation and eliminates what may have been the original intent, a global opportunity for a free creditable education for anyone who took the time and spent the effort to work the coursework.

Erick (profile) says:

Re: Hmmm

I think one of the issues with free online classes is the inability to measure the outcomes. If a provider of free courses is going to require some sort of assessment such as papers or exams, then they are going to want to paid for their work. In the absence of any proof that the student actually learned the material, it is hard for another institution to grand credit for the work. However, some colleges will allow you to take a test to see if you could get credit for a course that they teach with similar content. I have used free courses for my own professional development and it does seem to help me within my job and even as part of a curriculum vitae. I think there is a role for free online classes but that role is not going to lead to a degree or certification in the absence of some sort of credible assessment.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...