Rush to Online Higher Ed Only Provides 'Access' to Failure

Dramatic expansion of access for underserved students is one of the most widely touted promises of online higher education.

The thinking is reasonable at face value -- online learning will provide a pathway to higher ed for students of color, those from lower-income families and students who are academically underprepared. But what advocates are quick to avoid, however, is discussion of the how online higher ed fails the very population of learners they purportedly seek to reach.

In its paper "The 'Promises' of Online Higher Education: Access," the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education took a hard look at what access truly means within the movement toward Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

This week, hundreds of faculty from among the California State University's 23 campuses will converge in Los Angeles to discuss true expansion of access and equity for students as part of the California Faculty Association's bi-annual Equity Conference. CFA, which is hosting the conference March 7 and 8, is one of the founding organizations of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Ed and a strong proponent of access to quality higher education for all students.

In fact, it was at San Jose State University, which last year had offered courses through online course provider Udacity, where one of the main problems associated with the "promise" of access became glaringly apparent.

Contrary to what some may claim, there is a very real digital divide -- an inequity between those who have regular, reliable access to the internet and digital technologies and those who do not -- that makes basic access to online courses more problematic for some groups.

At San Jose State, many of the low-income students didn't have access to computers and high-speed Internet connections at home, resulting in abysmal completion rates. But worse than that, a population of students was failed by an empty promise. San Jose State has since all, but ended its interaction with Udacity, thanks to disappointing results and outcry from faculty.

Growing research also shows that the same students experience an online achievement gap. While students show that students in general experience reduced performance in online settings, some groups of students -- community college, students of color, less well-prepared students -- experience significantly higher withdrawal rates and poorer performance than in face-to-face classes.

For these students, faculty and non-academic interaction is particularly important, and it aids in helping positively affect students' progress and persistence.

The truth is simple: Access to higher education must involve more than merely an opportunity to enroll in a course. For access to be meaningful, students must have a real chance to succeed in getting a quality education.

Research tells us that online courses work best for students who are academically and technologically prepared, mature and highly motivated. So the notion of expanding online remedial and introductory courses in community and state colleges and universities is not only misguided, it's unfair.

For most American students, who are increasingly diverse, low-income and unprepared for the rigors of collegiate study, a blind rush to "online everything" may, despite the promise, provide only access to failure.