Online education: The great American class divider



Here we go again. And there’s more. Corinthian Colleges, after having dashed any academic hopes of its students, is now also accused of predatory lending. That the wake and fiasco continue should come as no surprise, as online education continues to be the equivalent of fast food in many instances–too convenient and advertised with the same kind of veracity that makes prospective customers drool for a woman in a bikini or burger.

Obviously students putting themselves like prey into the hands of Corinthian hunters was not a good idea. Students had bait laid out for them as in many commercials for online education. The prospective student is portrayed at home or in a dead-end job. Then a bright, wide open space, some kind of fantasy office world to which the online student has graduated to become the boss.

As if one could really take one’s own future into one’s own hands and all would be well, moving from commercial right into an educational experience that is sold as if success were guaranteed, while of course the online institution knows perfectly well how far it is allowed to go by law in guaranteeing success. But the advertising is done by individuals that would be drinking buddies of Mad Men, so good luck escaping their dragnet of persuasion.

In a recent appearance on the Alice Stewart Show with guest host Rex Nelson talking about the need for young adults and college students to spend more time online, I made the comment that “to be successful in today’s world it’s important for students to have access to Internet in the right way.”

Using the Internet to “attend” many today’s online colleges is neither a smart choice nor is it the first choice for many middle class or upper-class students. They will choose to have a residential campus experience. Meanwhile, persons of lower socio-economic status are given to believe that they can check in on their smartphones and do some homework while they wait in line to purchase groceries for the family, only to be interrupted by the need to flash to another screen to redeem a virtual coupon.

Even if future employers do not differentiate between courses taken online or on campus, in what mode entire degrees are earned, many online students stand to gain little more than a task-oriented education. It is difficult to create online opportunities for interactions that are spontaneous. The interaction of posting to discussion boards is mechanical at best. How much do other students learn from their online classmates, tired after working long hours and often still working on literacy that has nothing do with technology.

Yes, this kind of fast food approach to education has quality control, but how good is it really for us, even if every person takes the same number of tests and virtually jumps through the required hoops in an online course. Is this one time when TQM becomes again a four-letter word, as the common denominator is a kind of Six Sigma perversion of the lowest common denominator in the mastering of skills.

So how do we control this convenience factor that equals less quality and an underclass of students? I am not convinced it is in the interest of most educational institutions to do so. In an educational system increasingly motivated by profits, it is more about luring away customers from McDonald’s to Taco Bell, and as you are reading this, there is probably an upstart trying to steal away the breakfast business from Taco Bell also (a clever variation of eating your competitor’s lunch), and most students have not been, are not being, conditioned to stop frequenting fast food places.

It is obvious that the business end of Corinthian Colleges has been responsible for letting online students down. But how do we prevent such future disasters from happening? Government regulation is not the answer. But the Department of Education and even non-profit higher education entities would do well to begin producing service announcements that warn prospective online students what they should look for to prevent disasters that affect not only the students who are the customers of online education businesses but society, and taxpayers at all levels.

Think about just how difficult it is even for many families who have the financial resources and an established history of going to college in their family to really ascertain what kind of quality education their offspring will receive in brick-and-mortar institutions. And accreditation to those who are uninitiated is often as meaningless as or taken at face value the way we purchase cans of tuna with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Together we can prevent online education from further disasters, which it does not need. With the right kind of research we should be able to provide a guide to online schools to inform students, who unfortunately, in relation to online education, have been part of the worst kind of customer serv