Massive open online courses will not solve socio-economic inequality

Education's high costs will continue to be a struggle for students despite online learning

Today, education is a costly commodity and anything but equal or accessible to all. All possible solutions to leveling the playing field among students of different social, ethnic and financial backgrounds are worth consideration, one of the most prominent among them being online education, or massive open online courses (MOOCs). Binghamton University offers over 600 MOOCs without credit, unlike most colleges where credit is dependent on the specific course. However, this is not an effective direction for education. Despite their initial objective, MOOCs do not diminish the unequal opportunity many students encounter in the educational realm nor are they a sufficient solution to cut costs.

The aptitude of public schools in the U.S. is significantly divided by region and consequently racial demographic. This puts those who live in less profitable areas at an educational disadvantage. The average college education varies between $40,000 and $50,000 while, according to The Wall Street Journal, the median household income for American citizens in 2012 was just over $50,000. The purpose of MOOCs is to give those who cannot afford an education the ability to receive higher instruction in the field of their choice and to make education available around the globe. Though in principle MOOCs appear to promote educational equality, in practice they only expand the gap.

A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania depicted that only about half of students who registered for an online course watched a lecture, and roughly 4 percent completed the course. Moreover, a distinct survey also from the University of Pennsylvania discovered that approximately 80 percent of those taking an online class had previously received a degree. These statistics show that completing an MOOC is harder and demands more educational training, initiative and self-regulation. If all colleges are in a rush to initiate MOOCs, it can’t be long before high schools start launching their own MOOCs to prepare students for their academic endeavors. The problem is that not all high schools will be able to prepare students for online education, thus furthering the gap of student inequality.

De facto segregation occurs in schools because of financial reasons and regional inequality. Regions with lower taxes equate to less money allotted for the public schools in that area. Therefore, students who grow up in less affluent neighborhoods and attend their local public school will have a disadvantage. While MOOCs are supposed to attack this unjust oppression, if higher funded public schools can more effectively invest in and execute their own MOOCs, students who attend less funded schools will suffer from not learning how to navigate MOOCs.

MOOCs do not make education any easier for students who have certain learning differences or disabilities, and subsequently both require and thrive on the natural human contact that is essential to a learning environment. A student with a reading disability or auditory disability may not be able to succeed in the virtual classroom, which, as statistics show, can be much more strenuous on the “average” student.

In his article “The Trouble With Online Education,” Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, explains that students in the classroom have an equally vital role as the professor conducting the class. Lectures are a combination of lesson plans and conversation. An Internet classroom doesn’t allow the professors to build the same relationship with their students. Recorded lectures may as well be put in a textbook or CD. In essence, Edmundson is explaining that in order for education to evolve, teachers must gauge how their students learn and succeed. Hence, MOOCs have the potential to stunt the evolution of education holistically.

MOOCs are not a solution to the high cost of education, nor do they level the playing field for students of different backgrounds. They should only be employed as a resource at the interest of the individual. Isn’t one of the fundamental reasons for education not to just make money, but to attain a thirst for knowledge and relish in the joy of learning among the camaraderie of fellow learners? MOOCs largely serve as another example of how some aspects of human life cannot be animated.

Editor’s Note: This column is part of a Point-Counterpoint on the success of online education. Julianne Cuba’s counter-piece, “Web classes are more accessible and flexible than classroom learning,” can be found here

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.