Online education: Fix the system then fix the schools

In recent months, the public perception of online education providers has taken a savage beating. Despite a steady stream of students who are enrolling in online schools, the schools are still struggling mightily to rid themselves of the negative stigma that continues to linger.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for this negative stigma is that – when you look at the numbers – online schools have an abnormally high dropout and loan default rate.  In fact, the default rates at for-profit colleges reached 15 percent this year and the dropout rate has been as high as 57 percent in recent years.  

These numbers are not flattering and they are definitely indicative of a major issue in online education and online schools. But that’s just it. While the focus of the public’s wrath has been on for-profit colleges, online schools across the country – for-profit or otherwise – have been struggling to educate their students with the same success that traditional schools do.

So what if the problem isn’t necessarily the for-profit colleges themselves, it’s the giant disconnect between what the schools are teaching, and what the students are capable of learning?

In the past few days, the perfect storm of intelligent education writers have broached this topic in such simple and rational terms, that it seems incredible this topic isn’t discussed at length all the time. Kay Steiger was the first to arrive at the conclusion when she wrote an article titled “Edupunks and Technology Utopianism”.

It’s worth the full read because of how many excellent points she makes, but the major take away from it all is that the Internet and other technologies have made education a “do-it-yourself” activity. Why do you need to take a class on the Civil War and Reconstruction when you can find dozens of reliable sources on that information with just a few swift keystrokes?

But her best quote came here:


Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out,and, as one attendee from University of Maryland University College pointed out during the Q&A period session of the event, many students struggle with basic computer and internet literacy. It seems those that are best positioned to take advantage of the “edupunk” perspective, might just be those who are likely to attend a four-year residential college or university anyway.


She points out that many students have used this system to find success, but the theme remains. The prevailing online learning system needs to be tweaked. Currently the system is still set up to help those students who need the least help and hasn’t quite figured out how to engage those students who need the help the most.

Yes, stricter regulations on online colleges might help. Yes, increased oversight of students might also help. Lawmakers and administrators and teachers can all break their backs trying to help the students, but if the student can’t find the motivation within himself to want to educate his self, then it will never happen.

Kevin Drum, a political blogger for Mother Jones magazine sums it up best in a recent piece:


Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you're in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don't go to class and don't do the homework, but lots do. But if you're studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it's a level that, frankly, most of us just aren't capable of.


I went to a traditional, respected, four-year institution of higher learning, and I will readily admit that getting motivated to do my homework and go to class was a very difficult proposition. Luckily for me, my university created detailed infrastructure to help me learn the information and then practice it. At online schools, where most of the learning is self-paced and self-taught, that infrastructure doesn’t exist.

Instead these online schools are basically relying on the fact that the student has a strong desire to educate himself. Self-paced learning sounds great in theory, but it places too much faith in the student’s motivation to learn.

So how do we fix this problem? Well, I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of online learning systems to comment specifically on their usefulness, but I do have one broad idea that could serve as a good starting point: get to know your students.

I am not talking about asking them what their name is, what their favorite movie is, and what they like to do on the weekend. I am talking about really diving into each student’s life individually. I recently did an interview with Howard Liebman, the co-founder of Smart Horizons Career Education, which will be up in its entirety tomorrow. But I want to share one of his quotes now.  I asked him specifically about how Smart Horizons tries to combat the student dropout rates and he said, “We focus our engagement model on engaging not just the academic part of their life, but all aspects of the students’ life whether it is family or finances or personal issues.”

Students – whether they are adults or teenagers or kids – all have unique issues that affect their life, which in turn affect their education. Just like some of the larger traditional schools, too many of these large online schools enroll a student and then are unable to accommodate their individual needs, and the student ends up falling through the cracks. But unlike traditional schools, online schools provide even less structured learning environments to cover up some of those cracks, so more students fall through.

The emphasis in learning should always be on the student. It’s a customer service requirement. The best way to ensure the customer is satisfied is to understand what makes the customer tick. If a student lives in an environment that makes learning difficult, help him/her find a better place to learn. If a student is a math genius but struggles writing long papers, find him/her a tutor or counselor to help in that specific area.

I am not saying this will work as a cure-all for all of online education’s various maladies. The issue is still too new and too complex to be solved in one afternoon. But there are some basic building blocks that will serve as a solid foundation. Now it’s up to the schools to make sure they start the construction.

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