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Delivering on the Promise of Online Education

Hans Johnson March 20, 2015

Zócalo Public Square, which combines live events and journalism, asked PPIC senior fellow Hans Johnson and other experts to answer this question: How will technology—from massive open online courses and web-based textbooks to big data collection—change universities? Here is his response. Visit Zocalopublicsquare.org to read what others had to say.

A popular prediction is that new technology will revolutionize higher education, making traditional brick and mortar colleges obsolete. Certainly, new technology offers tremendous potential—democratizing access to college, enhancing instruction, and improving graduation rates, to name a few. But before we jump on the bandwagon of declaring a new era in higher education, we should assess the degree to which new technology can address fundamental challenges in higher education.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to ensure that higher education serves as a ladder for economic and social mobility rather than simply reinforcing economic and class divides. By that standard, we can dismiss most Massive Online Open Courses offered in conjunction with the nation’s elite universities. Most of those courses are taken by people who already have a college degree, and the vast majority of students who enroll in such courses never finish them.

A different experiment in online learning, and one that serves hundreds of thousands of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, is taking place at California’s community colleges. With over one million course enrollments, California’s community colleges are the largest public provider of online education in the country. They are the gateways to higher education for low-income and nontraditional students—those with jobs and family obligations.

At the Public Policy Institute of California, we examined student success in online courses in the state’s community colleges. In our study, we found that course completion and passage rates are substantially lower in online courses than in traditional ones, even though students in online courses tend to be more advantaged and academically prepared. Moreover, gaps in academic performance that we see among demographic groups in real-life classrooms are exacerbated in the online setting.

What these early findings demonstrate is not failure, but the need to improve both technology and the way it is used in instruction. If we can get it right at the community colleges, we can deliver on the promise of online education.

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