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“Online Learning” is a great tool, but not a cheat code for social progress

When the pandemic forced schools and colleges to shove all their classes online, a lot of proponents of online learning felt triumphant:  at last, online learning’s time had truly come, and nothing could stop it now!

A month ago we predicted there would be a backlash.  And, wow, has it arrived.

Writing in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg said “remote school is a nightmare.  Few in power care.”  In Slate, Emily Oster said that schools must declare their intention to open.  And where online education was once championed as a solution to systemic inequality, it is now often seen as exacerbating systemic inequality.  

When our systems were focused on in-person education, everyone looked to online education to solve all the problems.  Now that online education is the default situation, they look back at classrooms longingly.  The grass is always greener.  

But the backlash to online education is as unrealistic as the hailing of it as a savior once was.  Much as you wouldn’t say that “a classroom” is the answer to the needs of real students with specific problems (is it a math classroom?  A science lab?  A writing workshop?), it makes no sense to point at online learning and say it’s the solution to any given educational problem.  Rather, there are key questions that must be asked and answered:  what is the class trying to achieve?  What problems is it trying to solve?  Who are the students it is meant to support?  These questions seem simple, but they matter.

The mass migration of courses online was done as an emergency stopgap measure, and did not in any way represent the use of best practices or intentional course development.  It doesn’t represent what online learning is supposed to be any more than chatting with a doctor at a party is what the practice of medicine aspires to.  

To work, online education needs to ask itself the same questions, in each specific instance it is applied, that conventional education does.  Broadly, those questions can be summarized in three parts:

  1. Who are our intended students?
  2. What practices will best help them access the knowledge and support they need?
  3. What obstacles exist to our implementing those practices?

Most schools and colleges cast a wide enough net that they’ll actually have to ask these questions over and over for the different populations they serve.  Because - and this is the whole point - the answers to 2 and 3 will change each time the answer to 1 does.  Failure to understand the particular needs of students will cause the whole system to fail.

Online learning CAN be a better option - for some populations.  But it has to be designed carefully and deliberately, and tested well.  It’s not just that the knowledge all has to be there - there’s strong evidence that the quality of the teachers matters significantly, and that some populations benefit from a low touch approach, while others a high touch approach.  Much in the way that classroom learning is great for people who have easy access to the classrooms, online learning requires access to and comfort with the technology used.  

Calbright’s advantage is precisely that we are focused:  we have a simple set of goals, a clear target population, and continue to develop specific practices around those two things.  Sometimes, that allows us to help our sister California schools, as when we loaned over 500 internet hotspots to students from other colleges who didn’t have access to the technology at home, but had to continue their studies online.  Sometimes it will be the development of best practices that other schools can use where appropriate for the specifically targeted students who they serve.  Part of our mandate, after all, is to share whatever practices and resources we develop.  

But if we want “online learning” to be successful, these are questions that every school and every college is going to have to take seriously;  and the public debate about “online education” needs to mature beyond a simple “Is it good or is it bad?” mentality, and instead talk about what works, and for whom.  That’s the route to using online learning properly, and finally addressing those long, stubborn, systemic injustices.  

A problem with all the hype around online education was the assumption so many people made that moving courses online would automatically solve these issues.  That simply changing the format from in-person to digital would let us be better, cheaper.  But online education is another modality, not a cheat code for social progress.  As long as it’s held up as a cheap and easy way to not think about systemic problems and avoid providing adequate resources to education, it will fail because nothing can live up to those expectations.  

But when online education is done in a thoughtful, focused way, it can be a much better experience for specific students.  That’s important progress, but it doesn’t happen automatically.  Online education has enormous potential, but it’s still going to take work, and resources, and expertise.