As almost everyone now knows, online education has its problems. No hiccups or hiccups, although he has them too.
Online education, distance education, digital distance learning – whatever name you give it – has flaws in its genetics that have opened the door to a host of important and significant issues. Over the past few weeks, we have seen glaring and shocking evidence of two.
The first is that online education, in essence, is not a face-to-face, face-to-face activity. And this defect cannot be helped. Being online, remote, virtual is what makes it what it is. Being online requires space – geographic and relational – between people. Online education, in other words, doesn’t bridge the gap between instructors and students, it’s that gap.
A second flaw in online learning is the temptation to evolve. In the dawn of e-learning, innovators and entrepreneurs have touted its ability to scale – the power of distance technology to teach 300 or 3,000 students online instead of 30 in a classroom . Online education would educate the world and for pennies on the dollar, they said – allowing schools to take advantage of large online programs, too. The problem is that scale, efficiency and the pursuit of profit inevitably, invariably reduce quality.
Starting with the pressure of ‘scale’ and ‘return on investment’, many may have ignored the November news that accreditors placed Eastern Gateway Community College – an Ohio public school – on probation on the lack of quality of its online programs and the lack of standards in online admissions. Limited media coverage of the suspension called it a “scathing reprimand.”
Without going too far, Eastern Gateway struck a deal with a for-profit company known as OPM, an online program manager – one of those companies that says it’s “Revolutionizing the Future of online learning “but takes half of student tuition in the case. As a result, the school has seen its enrollment increase from 3,000 students in 2015 to more than 46,000, according to press reports. These reports also note that “all, except 3,491 of the 46,606 students enrolled in the college, take courses exclusively online.” And so, with a heavily marketed online program advertising a “free” college, enrollments and margins have skyrocketed.
Many in education would call it great success. But, the school’s accreditor said, the quality has plummeted. The watchdog specifically noted that “there is a gap between enrollment requirements for online and on-campus student populations” and that online programs rely heavily – too heavily – on contractual auxiliary teachers.
The contract, auxiliary teachers, in terms of education, is the code for inexpensive. Cheap, of course, means scale and profit – or in the case of a public school, budget surplus. A spokesperson for Eastern Gateway even told a newspaper that the reason the school could support such rapid growth was the “scalability” of the auxiliary instructors.
Again, this ability to scale and squeeze every penny out of every online student is a hallmark of online education, not a bug. The lower quality, higher profit model is a design advantage that we have seen in for-profit schools for a decade and more recently in schools such as Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State and Purdue and d ‘others. If you can keep your costs down by relying on cheap and classy accessories, for example, it pays to go “global,” the current marketing term for online. And as long as the DNA of e-learning comes with the lure of scale and profit, there will be pressure to increase enrollment by lowering investment and quality.
The DNA loophole in the e-learning space vacuum has also surfaced recently in what should have been a shocking story of California – that automated computer robots were enrolling in online community college programs in an attempt to defraud financial aid payments. Fake students signing up for online courses to collect real money, in other words.
And it’s not a lousy operation happening in California. According to reports, 60,000 suspected bogus students have applied for financial aid in the state, and up to 20% of traffic to California schools’ online admission portals could come from bots trying to enroll. In follow-up reports, a professor who has followed the plight of bogus students said she believes bots “could multiply”.
Plus, fake student bots don’t just sign up for classes and ask for help. They log into the teaching and learning platforms – LMS as they are called – and complete their homework so that they appear to be real students. The work is often gibberish or plagiarized, of course. But making that decision, telling the real work from the computer garbage, defies a strictly automated response that could detect and start bots.
The LA Times reported that a vice president of academic affairs at one of the affected California colleges recently emailed professors of the online courses suggesting they “require interactive student engagement over the course of the course. first week of class to determine if they are real or fake. ”
When it comes to telling professors to interactively engage with students, you have online training. When you have to tell them to do it to spot bogus student scams, you have the kind of problem that can only exist in an online program, in the student-teacher gap. Real teachers can probably spot a real student when they show up to class. When they never have to, that’s a problem.
Like the problem of scale, distance in online education is no accident or user error. Temptations of scale and gaps in relationships are embedded, designed, and even marketed as hallmarks of online learning.