Monday, November 21, 2011

Guest Post: Are Online Schools Evil

Guest Post by Lindsey Wright.

[Lindsy asked if I'd be willing to post something she's written on the topic of online schools and I felt additional perspectives were welcomed on this blog, so, I apologize for the lack of posts over the past few months, the new position at Huston-Tillotson, plus some personal issues, have had me focused elsewhere. So it is with pleasure, that I present an interesting and thought provoking piece by Lindsey Wright. Ray]

Are Online Schools Evil?

Online schools represent one development of the growing trend of web-based education, which itself is far from a bad thing. However, care must be taken to separate the concept of a web-based school from the reality of the institutions that exist now. Unfortunately, many of the existing online schools are part of a pernicious cycle of exploitation that has given the very notion of online education a bad name. Despite this, it's important to keep in mind that the financial evils of these institutions are regrettably symptomatic of broader problems in higher education generally. While the issues with online schooling as it stands now can't be overlooked, educators and the public should nevertheless bear in mind that as a learning medium web-based education holds a great deal of promise if the institutions providing it develop and maintain better objectives and commitment to education itself.

Sadly, the public eye's view of online education has for some time been focused on the predatory tactics used by admissions personnel to pressure prospective students into enrollment at for-profit online colleges. Last year, some of these schools were even investigated by the Government Accountability Office, revealing that college representatives routinely misrepresented or unlawfully withheld information about the schools' programs. In some cases, the GAO's undercover prospective applicants were even encouraged to falsify financial aid forms in order that they (and in turn, the schools) would receive greater sums of federal aid money. These schools are consistently reported as deliberately recruiting low-income applicants for the large aid packages they receive. They've also been called out for targeting veterans eligible for GI Bill benefits. In both cases, the schools are said to have the aim of “churning” through as many students as possible: recruiting them, collecting their federal aid money, and then failing to provide sufficient support to prevent these students from dropping out.

Of course, there are students who successfully and happily graduate from some of these for-profit online colleges (as evidenced by comments posted in some discussions). Nevertheless, and putting aside the schools' own defensive responses, it's difficult to ignore the considerable amount of federal financial aid collected by these schools compared to their high dropout rates, as well as the deceptive recruitment tactics that are often disavowed, yet widely reported.

While these issues are troubling, what is perhaps more worrisome (and often overlooked when the spotlight of infamy falls upon online schools) is the fact that similarly problematic trends exist in American higher education as a whole. Public and private schools with brick and mortar campuses have been admitting larger overall classes each year, even as tuition continues to grow. In particular, state schools, notably the University of California, are admitting greater numbers of out-of-state applicants (who pay higher tuition than state residents) in the face of budget cuts and the economic downturn. Meanwhile, as of 2009 the average college graduation rate in the US was only slightly higher than 50 percent ─¬ and that's taking into account whether students in four-year programs managed to finish within up to six years. For those who do graduate, prospects are not so rosy today for the college-educated as they were even a decade ago.

Many are questioning the value of undergraduate education that leaves graduates without much competitive edge in the job market yet saddles most with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. For-profit online schools are (perhaps rightly) vilified for grubbing student money and providing what's often said to be sub-par education at too high a price for those who make it to graduation, but it's hard to say American colleges generally are far from the same.

A difficult road lies ahead to address the financial, administrative, and academic issues with higher education. As we take the first steps, we mustn't do so with undue prejudice against web-based education. Undeniably, many of the for-profit institutions promoting online learning now are part of the problem. However, online education itself is good, and represents a medium that will be a part of the solution.

An online school is in principle a very good thing. As a learning institution, it can direct consumption of online content much as traditional schools have begun to do, and as they have long guided consumption of printed content. Web-based and web-facilitated schooling also embodies the greater flexibility, accessibility, and individualization widely recognized to be needed in education generally. Besides the infamous for-profits, a growing number of traditional colleges are offering online courses of study, and even some public school districts have begun to test the waters of online education.

The point to take away is this: online schools as we know them may well be in some cases as bad as their reputations, but online schooling is only a medium for learning, one that holds a great deal of potential for what education needs to become. Going forward, we shouldn't conflate the evils of exploitation and profiteering with the medium of web-based education itself.