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.

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  1. In a past life, I was a public school History and English teacher at a magnet school in a large metropolitan area. Even then – the ’80s and ’90s – the education industry was addicted to “the latest thing”, whether it be some supposedly new (and flaky!) educational approach, or the latest-and-greatest technology. Supposedly, each one of these was to be the Holy Grail to all our woes.

    Of course they most certainly were not!

    My own experience with the required few online courses in my recent graduate program pretty much confirm what you’re saying here, Dr. Stice. Certainly, technology has its place, but it is no substitute – no magic bullet – for face-to-face interaction with real people in real places.

  2. Online learning may be able to save small rural schools, and thereby help save small rural towns. More content, and face-to-face interaction, even virtually, could potentially undo some of the catastrophic harm caused by centralization a few decades ago. Though realistically it is probably too late.
    As for universities, the entire structure of what they’re doing right now is completely flawed. A system that was designed to teach a small number of people a few specialized professions was morphed into a system for general education for the entire population. Of course that’s not working, so people are searching desperately for alternatives.
    And I would hope most porchers could agree that sucking all young adults away from their hometowns to be “educated” at a distant university, is the opposite of valuing “the power of physical place” in ways that are overall good for society.

  3. The problem with this article is that if you changed the publishing date to 1/1/2001 it would then be relevant and up-to-date. Online learning is not disrupting anything now because it already did that and totally at least a decade ago, arguably longer. We’re not looking forward to a change in the landscape, we are walking across a landscape that already changed long enough ago to make this article seem almost satirical.

    It’s hard today to find a school that doesn’t have an online program. Even the Ivy League has been in the fold for years, see Harvard.

    It could be argued that online learning is in a period of decline, but that can only happen because there had been a period of increase, which again is another example rendering this article out of touch as that doesn’t appear to be recognized.

    “This is not just because some of the universities that are most online have also been for-profit.”

    ^^^ Let’s keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in existence are non-profit organizations (although the term “non-profit” is often dubious in its execution and the public is grossly naive about just how similar non-profit and for-profit schools actually operate, but I digress), and nearly all of those non-profit schools in the United States have online programs, so there is that.

    Failure/drop-out rates in online learning have more to do with the fact that most schools allow open enrollment for these programs. Obviously, lower barriers to entry will mean lower quality students, but the issue is self-correcting: lower quality students are given a shot even though they may not be college-ready, they fail out, and only students capable of succeeding remain and earn the degree at the end. There is also a greater, positive message in that high failure rate that is being missed: online learning is not easy, nor is it easiER than offline learning despite that myth prevailing even to a lesser extent today than 15-20 years ago.

    Then there is the lament about face-to-face interaction. Never mind that the average online college student is a mid-career professional that doesn’t have the need nor the time to replay all of the rites of passage that young students need to be successful in academics and later in life (e.g. constant in-person interaction and personal growth), and let’s not even touch on the fact that issues cited about an online class in something like marine biology were solved many years ago when schools began requiring in-person contact for things that really require it.

    The next article should be about how e-mail is replacing the postal letter because that topic would be just as timely.

  4. I am more than a little skeptical of the rosy view of readership conveyed in this article. There are plenty of studies that show declining readership, as an activity, across all age groups. Easy to find sales data that shows the number one category for adult readers is young adult books (which surely indicates something if I could just grasp it). And the latest information on the generation after the millennial, the so called i-gen, shows reading activity levels have fallen through the floor.

    But I will rely on my own observations. I have been in involved in the book industry for thirty years. Profits are chased by trimming costs. There are no new customers. Rumors of a resurgence in both reading and independent bookstores remain, what we term, a dead cat bounce. It looks like a sign of life, but it is not. Let us not even touch the catastrophic declines in books being checked out from the public libraries. Or, we all might be really depressed. In this case, those flowers you smell really do presage the arrival of a funeral.

    Now, I know, I know, your second cousin twice removed is eight years old and just loves holding a book. But holding a book does not a trend make.

  5. I appreciate Prof Stice’s skepticism about online learning, which is often implemented as an extension of the sad trend toward hiring adjunct faculty (I was one for a few years) on a paid-per-course basis. She is also correct in mentioning the severe impact of the profit motive.

    However, I agree with Brian’s skepticism about the Guardian article she quoted as justification for her assertion that “real books are killing eBooks”. That article says nothing about the actual sales of hardcopy books, but you can follow a link therein to the Guardian’s earlier article (4/27/17) that does give sales stats.

    But these stats are distorted because sales are only part of the picture. Indeed, eBook sales peaked in 2014 and then declined. Why? Because Amazon began to “rent” eBooks instead of selling them. Note the 2014 start date of their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, which new authors are pushed to agree to:

  6. I have to respectfully disagree with the author’s take on online education. I completed a fully online MDiv in 2016 which enabled me to continue to serve as an elder in my local church, teach and preach. I was not able to move (my local area has no seminary) for a few months let alone for several years to complete a 3 year seminary degree. These three years were extremely difficult, many times staying up until 1 to 2 in the morning writing papers and conducting research. Further, one may say that I would learn more meeting face to face with peers and professors all around a table or in the classroom where questions could be asked and answered. I do think I would have benefited from such an environment, but I’m not sure I learned more than dealing with real ministry issues, coming face to face with church members and attendees, praying for people struggling with divorce, disease, and depression, practicing actual preaching while taking my homiletics and hermeneutics courses. In fact, I would argue that my daily interactions with the church, students, and the poor and suffering of my community reminded exactly what I was studying for, not in a laboratory or theoretical round table, but in real life. My studying mattered and I took it very seriously and I can say wholeheartedly that I greatly benefited from my fully online degree. It showed me how much I didn’t know, but how to ask the right sorts of questions and how to find the answers. It prepared me for God’s goodness in my current profession where I literally use my degree every single day teaching for a classical Christian school. It also showed me the value of life-long learning and that I don’t have to move to pursue a worthy education, I can be present in my local community which is what I thought the Front Porch Republic was all about. Rather than dismiss online education as less than the current (could we even say slightly broken) model, let us explore the good it can have on a community, bringing some world class professors and teachers to the front doors (and porches) of homes anywhere with an internet connection. Ultimately, whether online or face to face, education really does come down to the work ethic and willingness to learn of the student.

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