Should We Bother With Online Classes?

Why should we bother with online classes?

It’s a serious question.  Without the sheen of new technology and “innovation,” there are few clearly-articulated reasons to make this model work.  Online classes for their own sake is nonsense.  There are some good reasons: for example, creating accessibility to material through online videos or specialized classes that cannot be offered locally is great.  Allowing students to go at their own pace can potentially be very helpful, if they are pushed to make progress.  But if you want to replace schools with online classes, you’d better have a good reason why doing classes online is better.  After all, if they are disconnected from the instructor and their peers, will students be motivated to work?  Without the human connection, will students just drift away?  While sitting at the computer, will students just get distracted as we all do?  There seem to be more challenges than benefits.

Of course, there are lots of initiatives in online schools right now.  At the college level or similar, Stanford’s experiments have launched Coursera (where professors from numerous top universities offer their courses) and Udacity (“a digital university with the mission to democratize education”); there’s Minerva (an online MBA program for third-world countries, but see this take-down) and Udemy (which enables anyone to create and take courses online); and of course there’s MITx, soon to become edX, which offers MIT and Harvard classes (and credit).  At the high school level, there are numerous online charter schools (although their success is hotly debated) and a number of options for motivated/talented students (such as EPGY, CTY’s online courses, and Art of Problem Solving, aka AoPS, where I have been an online instructor).

But wait a moment.  Look at all those models.  They’re all about access to specialized material.  Indeed, online charter schools, which try to reach “every” student, have very mixed results.  The emotional distance that comes from sitting behind a computer screen detaches you.  If you are not driven to learn, you will not become driven just because it’s online.

When you look at all of the online schooling models that get Silicon Valley types excited, there is a common trend.  Although they are not aimed at motivated students, that is often where they’re likely to find success.  It’s true for all of the university programs above (which are based around the idea that people will seek out university educations); it is true for Khan Academy.  These are wonderful programs that create educational access, but they do not drive people to their doors.

I’m not saying that there aren’t ways around this.  Perhaps we can create an engaging classroom environment that takes advantage of social networking. (Folks have tried, unsuccessfully, to create more of a real classroom environment with Second Life.)  Perhaps we can create an online culture of learning.  Right now, though, we don’t have that solution.  We should use online schooling where it works, for students who are motivated, who want extra challenge, or who want to go at their own pace.  We shouldn’t try to force everyone into it as some magic panacea until we have a good justification for why it helps, and we shouldn’t say that it’s the wave of the future until we have some clue how that future actually improves on the status quo.