Will Free Online College Courses Actually Widen The Socio-Educational Gap?
from the mmm-probably-not dept
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.