In 1992, Neil Postman published Technopoly, a book named after a term he coined to describe the belief that efficiency and technology should triumph in society over the less efficient and the less technologically-driven. Postman considered it “totalitarian technocracy,” because it minimized the importance of human experience and judgment. But the unflagging belief in technological solutions with diminishing regard for human experience has not slowed down since 1992. In higher education, it has sped up. The rise of online learning is a case in point.
Online learning has many apparent advantages. It allows students to study and learn from a distance, or while working a full-time job, and students can set their own schedule. For universities, there are even more advantages. Enrollment can increase without as much corresponding demand for on-campus and physical resources. Online courses can be so developed as to require fewer full-time or on-site faculty. Tuition goes up, while expenses go down. Online education has been a gold rush for some universities. Some have staked their entire future on it and have a wide selection of fully online programs.
Unfortunately, for many students, online education is fool’s gold. This is especially true for undergraduates. The reduced structure and support make negative outcomes more likely. While many students can (and do) benefit from the availability of some online courses, those who enroll in fully online programs fail at a higher rate than those who receive traditional education. We’ve now had online learning long enough for it to be studied, and the results of most studies are not encouraging. Online learning was hoped to help more students succeed. In fact, the achievement gaps widen for students who are already disadvantaged. This is not just because some of the universities that are most online have also been for-profit. It takes great effort to develop online programs comparable to in-person instruction, and these programs require well-trained faculty and support staff. Some programs have done the work, but it seems that many have not.
Despite the failure to live up to its promise, online learning continues to grow. More schools seek to develop fully online programs, driven by profit motives and unflagging confidence in technology’s ability to improve anything. But it is telling that while Southern New Hampshire University has chosen to swell its undergraduate enrollment with online students, Harvard and schools like it have been much more reluctant. Administrator confidence in the value of online learning is not matched by employer confidence in online degrees. We should be wary of educational methods that look more like business models than paths to deep learning and academic success.
Too much of online learning is driven by greater enthusiasm for technology than for teaching. We live in an age obsessed with innovation and enraptured by “disruption.” Up and coming businesses seek to “disrupt” the market. Up and coming colleges and pedagogies seek the same. While new technology certainly has a place in the classroom and colleges need to adapt to their times, the potential of new technology to radically improve learning is not unlimited. A few years ago, many experts believed that e-books would replace traditional books. However, even with the rise of “digital natives,” real books are currently killing e-books. Similarly, despite the enthusiasm of technopolists, online courses have “failed to disrupt” higher ed.
The relentless hype around online learning reflects a failure to consider how humans actually thrive. The best education borrows from many centuries, not just the recent decade. Online grade books and JSTOR have improved many things for students, but the Socratic Method is still effective—and best in-person. Typing papers on computers is better for most students than using a typewriter, but taking notes by hand may be the most effective way to retain information. Not every aspect of traditional teaching is an old-fashioned limitation that needs to be transcended. Some of the “limitations” of traditional methods may also be strengths. And not every new generation hates all of the old ways. Millennials are actually bigger readers than their parents’ generation and, while CDs are in decline, records are making a comeback. If we only bank on innovation, we will fail. Good pedagogy is a thoughtful integration of many different techniques and technologies that will serve the goal of real learning. It’s not an endless hunt for the latest technological novelty.
For most undergraduate students, the potential of remote learning is not as great as the power of physical place. Our society has come to recognize the importance of location in food and consumer goods: why should we ignore it in education? Can an online marine biology course compare to one which includes field work? Sharing space with others is also important. Young people today have no shortage of online experiences. Humans need in-person social interaction. In the business world, remote work and open office plans held out much the same promise as remote learning to cut the tethers that bind us to places and designated spaces. But we have learned that open office plans are not helpful for most workers and, according to the World Economic Forum, remote work may be detrimental to well-being. To be a restless wanderer was the curse pronounced on Cain in the Bible. Humans thrive when attached to places. A university can be a physical place designated for learning and designed for the best possible educational outcomes.
There is certainly a place for online learning in undergraduate education, and it can be very helpful for some students. But we should not undercut traditional higher education for the sake of innovation or profit margin. Adoption and adaptation of online courses should be based on academic success and their suitability for student learning. Most undergraduate students benefit from in-person instruction and on-campus experiences and graduate at higher rates when they have both. We should not neglect the model of higher education which has the most student success. If we pursue the path of technology regardless of human outcomes, we will become victims of technopoly. And we’ll have enriched a few schools and technology corporations only to have less educated citizens.
The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of her university.