Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum join us to discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.
Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College.
- Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis
- Dr. Sandy Baum
- Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does Online Education Live Up to its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.
- Thomas Harkin – Former Senator from Iowa (1985-2014)Loosening Standards, Widening Inequality, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 22, 2019
- Fain, Paul (2019). “Take Down of Online Education.” Inside Higher Ed. January 16, 2019
- Shea, P. (2006). A study of students’ sense of learning community in online environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 35-44.
- Shea, P., Li, C. S., & Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 9(3), 175-190.
- City University of New York Accelerated Study in Academic Programs (CUNY ASAP)
- Quality Matters Rubrics
- SUNY Oscar Rubric
- AAUP – American Association of University Professors
John: Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, we discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guests today are Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum. Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College. Welcome.
Spiros: Thank you for having me.
Sandy: Glad to be here.
John: We’re glad to have you here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
Spiros: Coffee for me.
Sandy: Water for me.
John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.
Rebecca: And I have English Afternoon.
John: One of your usuals.
Rebecca: Yeah. We invited you here today to discuss your January 2019 paper on online education entitled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.” In this paper, you raise some significant concerns about the outcomes of online education. What prompted your interest in this topic?
Spiros: The conversation in higher education around the role of technology in tackling a lot of the major challenges in the sector has been going on for a long time. In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation focus on MOOCs, most recently on competency-based education, but before all that, the big focus was on online education. And there was a big debate in Washington that unfolded over a decade or so about whether online education should gain access to federal student aid, which it did in 2006. When I was working in the Senate for Senator Harkin, who was chairman of the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, we conducted very thorough and brought investigation of the for-profit college sector in light of increasing concerns regarding student debt, student outcomes, and overall predatory practices in the sector. And as we were doing that investigation, one thing that jumped out at me is that a lot of these actors—a lot of these schools that we were investigating—had a huge online presence and had experienced exponential growth in just a very short period of time. Obviously, that was the period of the Great Recession. So, as we know, enrollment in higher education is counter-cyclical to the economy, so part of it was explained by that. But this huge explosion in online education was something that I wanted to investigate a little bit more in depth. At the same time, there were these increasing conversations happening around online education and regulation. And a lot of folks were saying whether we should deregulate online education, whether there’s possibility for more innovation in the space, et cetera et cetera. So I partnered with Sandy to write this paper because it was an opportunity to do exactly that: to look back and see, what does the evidence tell us? Did online education live up to its promise as it’s advocates had stated when they successfully had the law changed in 2006 and gained access to federal student aid? What exactly is this potential and has it been realized? So it was a combination of many years working on higher education issues and constantly listening to the same argument of advocates on the innovation side of the equation, saying that technology holds the key for transforming higher education, and tackling it’s big challenges. And that if we deregulate higher education, and if we remove “barriers to innovation,” we’re going to unleash this huge potential of technology and we’re going to be able to reduce costs, get more students in college, and improve student outcomes. This was a great opportunity for us to take the time and to do a deep dive and to see what exactly is the evidence in this area?
Sandy: One of the things that is really notable about the conversation about increasing access to higher education and reducing the price of higher education in recent years is that the discussion so rarely talks about quality and about what students learn. So the idea sort of seems to be if we can get more students to spend less time getting more credentials, we’ll be in good shape, and that’s clearly not enough. So we really wanted to look at, if students do engage in this different method of learning, will they learn? Will they succeed? What does it mean for them?
John: What’s been happening to the share of students in online education?
Spiros: I’ll talk a little bit on the enrollment trends and then I’m going to pass it on to Sandy, who specifically focused on a lot of the review of the research literature on outcomes. We had seen an explosive growth in online education, almost one-in-three college students, over 6 million students, take any online courses. Half of these students—three million students—are enrolled in exclusively online programs, what we would call fully online programs, while the other three million take at least one, but not all of their courses online. So one-third of students today are involved in online education, one-sixth of students are enrolled in exclusively fully online education. Now, when you look at for-profit colleges, and just so we get a sense of the concentration—or rather the disproportionate share in the sector—for-profit colleges enroll six percent of all students, thirteen percent of students taking at least a course online, but a full one-quarter of fully online students. Eighty percent of students at four-year for-profit colleges take courses online. That’s more than two and a half times the rate at public institutions and triple the rate at private nonprofit higher education institutions. Today, seventy percent of four-year for-profit college students are fully online. So in other words, when you look at the entire four-year for-profit college sector, seven out of ten of their students never have in-person contact with peers or instructors. They are fully online. That is seven times the rate at public institutions, and a three and a half times the rate at nonprofit institutions. So big picture, online education enrollment is booming, it has experienced an explosive growth, and it has been disproportionately significant in the for-profit college, and how it coincided with a change in the law, I think you can reasonably say that, yes, there is a relationship there for sure, and that was a significant driver of the enrollment growth. But I would like Sandy to weigh in on these points as well, because she’s focused on that.
Sandy: So just a couple of clarifications about this enrollment growth. One is that although the growth has been much more rapid in the for-profit sector than in other sectors, and the share of for-profit students enrolled online is higher—much higher than the share in other sectors—large public state universities are seeing big efforts in the online space. I mean, you could interpret this as trying to provide opportunities for different groups of students, or as looking for a revenue source. So the revenue is also an issue for these public institutions. And there are a number of private nonprofit large institutions—just a very small number—that enroll thousands and thousands of online students. Another issue that is really important to understand is that much of the research that we looked at focuses on courses that are taught fully online. So there’s a distinction between your whole program being online and never seeing a human being, and just taking one course online. But there’s also a distinction between taking a course that is fully online and of course, that is what we call a hybrid course, that adds technology to some classroom experiences. And the evidence is that these hybrid methods are actually quite good for students and that the outcomes are at least as good as they are in traditional classroom courses. It’s the fully online coursework that we’re talking about, and about which there is a lot of evidence of questionable outcomes.
John: Earlier you noted that one of the arguments for increased use of online instruction is to lower costs and increase access. Have costs been lowered, either to students or to institutions by expanding online programs?
Sandy: By and large, no. There is some evidence that at institutions that do a lot of online education there may be some lower tuition prices, but the fact is that tuition is frequently higher. So it may be possible in the future for online coursework to save money. We don’t want to say that we know that that can’t be the case—because it’s logical that it could be the case—but right now, it hasn’t happened, and some of that has to do with individual institutions reinventing the wheel of course, and big investment overall in online education could in the future solve this problem. But today, no, it’s not cheaper.
Spiros: One point I wanted to add to what Sandy said is that it’s also an issue of incentives here. We obviously have University of Maryland, University College that has been one of the big players in the space for a long time and Arizona State University has always been a player, they’re announcing even more of an expansion. And as Sandy mentioned, one of the reasons is revenue. In other words, a lot of institutions see online education as a way to get more revenue. Then the question is, even if they become successful in reducing the costs of production—which as Sandy correctly pointed out, raises significant issues around quality—what would be the incentive to pass on the savings to students? So in other words, in many ways online education—even if it has the potential to reduce costs of production—the big question remains, is that going to translate into reducing the costs of attendance for students? And I’m not sure that the incentives are there for that to happen. And one of the things that we have seen is that not only do they charge the same tuition as they do for their regular programs, so if the university let’s say has a Bachelor’s in psychology, which is a brick-and-mortar program and then it offers a Bachelor’s in psychology online, and we see that they charge the same tuition, then they add on top of that a variety of technology fee s, and other things just for online, which ends up making it more expensive. And so there was one conclusion that we reached on the paper is that no, online education has not realized its potential of reducing costs in higher education today.
Rebecca: I’d like to focus a little bit on the quality issue that you’ve raised multiple times now. There’s a wide variety of courses that are online, you mentioned, certainly recording a video and putting it online and allowing many people to see it is very different than interactions that you might have with students. Can you talk a little bit about the differences in quality and what some of your findings were in that area?
Sandy: Well unfortunately, a lot of the studies that compare outcomes among students in fully online versus other courses don’t actually go into much detail about how those courses were taught, so the careful studies of this are rather limited. What is clear from all of the evidence is that interaction, personal interaction, makes a difference. That when you look at students who have no interaction with their classmates or with instructors, they are less likely to get good grades, they are less likely to complete their courses, and they voice this concern. In particular, it is vulnerable groups of students who suffer from this lack of interaction. So you see that students who are well prepared, who already know how to study, who are motivated, know how to learn, have good GPAs going into the courses, are most likely to do just as well in a fully online course as they would in a classroom course. But it’s those with weaker preparation, it’s students with low GPAs, it’s black and Hispanic students, students from low-income backgrounds. These students do very poorly in these courses, so that the socioeconomic gap in outcomes is greater in online courses than it is in classroom courses. This is a huge problem because people actually are hoping that online courses will make it easier for adult students, students with other responsibilities, work responsibilities, children, that for them—where the travel to a physical location is more difficult—this online learning could be the saving grace and that they would learn more from this. And those are the very students who are struggling most from it. And there is just a lot of evidence that the problem is learning—and we know this from the psychological literature as well— learning is a social process. I mean, we can all read something, but it’s not just a matter of pouring information into people’s heads, it’s learning to solve problems, it’s engaging in discussions, and for people who don’t have a lot of experience with that, the interaction is particularly important and the fully online learning environment is particularly risky.
Rebecca: You’re kind of emphasizing the idea that having an expert in the field to help guide the way students are learning how to think in the discipline is particularly important?
Spiros: Yeah, substantive expertise is key. The instructor has to be a subject matter expert, and has to interact with students. That is the essence of education. The educational process is intrinsically an interactive process. When if you go and look up in Oxford the definition of education, it’s gonna say, it’s between a teacher and a student interacting. I mean, you can’t have an education without the interaction. What is happening though now is that we’re seeing a glorification of self-learning. We’re seeing a glorification where you have students interacting with software programs, students interacting with technology, and that might be fine, but that’s not education. That’s self-learning. And the big distinction in the federal law between correspondence education—which is self-learning—and distance education is that in distance education—online education—students have to interact with an instructor on a regular basis and in a substantive manner. That regular and substantive interaction is legally, statutorily (in law), a regular education. And what was surprising to us is that in looking at the evidence we uncovered a large number of studies making that exact point. How from a pedagogical perspective, interaction between students and instructors is absolutely critical. And we found evidence that that is what increases student learning, that is what increases student satisfaction, that is what improve student outcomes. We reviewed those studies and the verdict was in, you got to have strong interaction. And so the current efforts by this administration to water down those requirements is very concerning because it’s going to blur the lines between self-learning and education. And interestingly, our paper coincided with a beginning of the negotiated rulemaking process at the Department of Education on a host of issues, including this one, under the general guise of promoting innovation and flexibility in higher education.
John: Actually, I think at least one of the studies that found this was a study of online instruction at the State University of New York by Peter Shea who found that classes that had more active instructor engagement and more interaction were more successful. But adaptive learning, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective in face-to-face classes, and I believe online as well. But I don’t think the ideas are mutually incompatible – that having students work individually with computer mediated instruction can be useful as long as they’re also interacting actively with the instructor and the class community and getting feedback on their work. So I don’t think we have to rule out adaptive learning tools to say that having active instructor engagement in the class is really important to learning.
Sandy: Adaptive learning is a whole other thing from what we’re talking about. And so we’re not saying that technology can’t help—of course, technology can help—and adaptive learning can be terrific. It’s not cheap, but it can be terrific. We’re not saying that there are no good fully online courses, either. I mean, that’s not the question. It’s about how most of this is done, and how it’s done, if it’s not carefully designed adaptive learning, and if it doesn’t involve personal interaction with subject matter experts.
Rebecca: In addition to the personal interaction, were there other things that you discovered would be really useful to help those populations that are particularly at risk that you mentioned earlier?
Spiros: I’m gonna ask Sandy to weigh in as well. But I can tell you that what we know from the literature about student outcomes in higher education in general, beyond what we examine in online education, is that academically underprepared and at-risk populations—including students from lower-income families, first-generation students, and the students with remedial needs, I mean, what we would call in general at-risk populations in higher education—they need significant academic and student support services to help them succeed. That requires a significant investment from the institution. It requires a purposeful and meaningful strategy that specifically is designed to address the unique needs of these populations. Of course, it’s difficult to cover all of the research and the literature in my comment, but we know that it takes a whole lot to support these students and to ensure their success. Everybody talks about the CUNY ASAP program, which has become the new poster child of what it takes to have tremendous success with these populations. That’s a very expensive program. It’s a great program, but it’s also a very expensive program. It again confirms what we know, which is: we know what needs to be done, but you have to have the investments and you have to have a purposeful strategy. But Sandy, I would like for you to weigh in on this as well.
Sandy: Yeah, I think it’s really important to understand that all of that evidence suggests that for at-risk students, for students with weak academic backgrounds, and with many factors that could interfere with their academic success, these students need really strong support systems, it’s not just about money. And it’s not just about time, it’s about the need for support systems. So it is certainly true that for many of these students, if they can take some courses online, this could actually help them to graduate because you can take more courses online, because you can do them in the evening and on flexible schedules. And even if you fail a lot of them still, you might end up accumulating more courses. But taking some courses online is not the same thing as thinking that you can just sit at home with your computer and get your whole education and succeed that way. Because being part of a community, part of an intellectual community, part of an academic support community, and part of a social support community is what these students need. Understanding that should make it possible for us to develop systems that take advantage of the things that online learning can contribute without assuming that it’s going to be the silver bullet, and that it can replace the important components of traditional learning. I think that’s one of the problems we always have is somebody sees something that adds an important component to the education system where they say, “Okay, let’s junk everything else and just do that. And that our evidence clearly suggests is not going to be a good strategy.
John: How do employers view online education relative to face-to-face education?
Sandy: There are surveys of employers, of faculty members, of academic administrators, of the public, uniformly they say that the perception is that online education does not produce the same outcomes as in-person education. Now, perceptions are not always a reflection of reality, but particularly for employers you would expect that perceptions would pretty quickly catch up to reality because those perceptions are, to a great extent, based on the performance of people they hire.
Rebecca: So you shared a lot of things that I think faculty or administrators who are developing online courses should certainly be thinking about. We’ve also talked a little bit about some of the legal issues that we might want to be concerned with. Are there things that faculty and institutions should be doing to make sure that quality is ensured, and that as institutions of higher education, and the value of education is held moving forward?
Spiros: Every industry needs to listen to its customers. Higher education needs to listen to students. And students surveys consistently emphasize the desire for greater interaction with their instructors and their peers, and so that is something that higher education needs to be responsive to. So even if they dismiss our paper, they dismissed what I think, what Sandy thinks, let’s just boil it down to the basics which is they need to listen to the students that they serve. I don’t like talking about students as customers or consumers. But just for the purposes of this conversation, they should listen to the consumers of their services, and so they definitely need to put a focus on that. They definitely need to understand that we have to ask if students need additional services. And they need to listen to their faculty. And we’ve seen many examples for faculty involvement in online programming hasn’t been that strong. Institutions are in a hurry to set up programs for revenue purposes and others, and they do not take the thoughtful approach that includes feedback and input from the faculty. So I think faculty involvement is critical. At the end of the day, faculty are the experts, faculty know pedagogy, faculty are the ones who work and teach the students, so I think that that’s another advice that that I would have. And again, I would be making the point that quality matters. It’s not just about just building the platform and going out there and offering online, you have to pay attention to making sure that it’s a quality education.
John: Speaking of Quality Matters, there is a Quality Matters rubric out there that’s used in many institutions to evaluate online education. And SUNY—along with the Online Learning Consortium—has also developed the OSCQR rubric. Will those types of things perhaps help ensure a higher quality of online instruction?
Spiros: Frankly, I’m not familiar with either of them. I’m not a traditional academic, I came out after eight years in government. So to be honest with you, I’m not particularly familiar with those. I don’t know if Sandy is, but I would say that all tools that are geared towards ensuring quality definitely are welcome into contributing that effort.
Sandy: So, what we do know is that the people who have worked on quality for online education agree that an important component of quality is making sure that there is substantive interaction. So these efforts seem to all be headed in a similar direction, which is, let’s make sure that we think about how students learn and that we incorporate that knowledge into how we design our courses. The problem that they’re going to run into is that it’s more expensive to do that. So it’s really important for the people who are focused on quality, who have evidence about quality, who care about quality, to stand up to the people on campus who are just saying, “Well, the goal here was to make more money, so let’s make it cheaper.” So yes, I mean, all of these efforts are really moving in the right direction and certainly compiling evidence is the best way to make sure that we improve outcomes at the same time that we broaden opportunities and promote innovation.
Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned that, on campuses, people who are emphasizing the quality are all moving in the right direction. But you also mentioned earlier that the legislation is moving in the other direction. So can you talk a little bit about that disconnect, and maybe some of the actions that we could try to take to, to help align those?
Sandy: Let me just say that—and Spiros is more of an expert on the details of the legislation—but there’s a clear movement under the current administration to reduce regulation, regardless, and there are obviously regulations in higher education and elsewhere, that are counterproductive that raise costs without improving outcomes, that burden providers and so on. And so looking at regulations is certainly worth doing and I think past administrations have done the same thing. But in this case, there is just a wholesale effort to remove the regulations that have been developed in order to protect students… to protect consumers. And so we just need to look at that and say, “Let’s look each time there was a proposal to reduce regulation and ask why that regulation was imposed, if there’s any evidence that it’s helping, and what the results of removing it would likely be,” and in higher education, it’s really frightening to watch and see how everything that in any way interferes, particularly with the providers of for-profit education, is assumed to be a bad thing. And we need innovation, we need to allow things to change and develop. We need new ideas. But we have a big history of the changes in the federal financial aid system, opening up to for-profit providers, leading to generating a huge growth in this sector that obviously included—well, it includes some quality institutions included—lots of organizations that were not interested in really educating students. So that could easily happen again, if we just say, “Oh, you have a good idea, you say it works. Go ahead, do it. We’ll pay for it.” That’s so obviously going to lead to big problems.
Spiros: Yeah, everything Sandy said was correct. And the one point I would make is people use the word innovation and I think it’s important to remember there’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation. Not all innovation is a good thing. Innovation means doing things differently, you can do things differently and have a better outcome and you can do things differently and have a worse outcome. So I think a lot of these changes that are being advanced by the administration, and here’s the disturbing part: Oftentimes, with the support of the higher education institutions, and the higher education sector overall—and I don’t know of any industry that loves regulation, higher education is no exception.—and it’s under this framing of “if we get rid of all these laws and all these regulations, et cetera, we’re going to have innovation.” And if we’ve learned anything from history—if we study history of regulation in higher education—is that every time we do that, there was a huge period of a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse, because the incentive structure in higher education promotes those behaviors. And we need to understand that when we change our regulation, we’re not just changing it for the good schools out there, we’re changing it for all the schools. So when you lower these barriers, when you remove these barriers—all of whom, by the way, are there for a reason—and the good actors might continue acting in a responsible manner, but there are a lot of bad actors who have an incentive to take advantage of that removal of the “barrier.” So when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion dollars a year—that’s according to the College Board, when you throw all the aid in and Sandy’s the author of that report so she knows that well—but when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion a year with tax expenditures and everything, that’s a pretty significant investment we need to safeguard and we need to understand that all of these changes actually have significant implications, most importantly for students, but also for taxpayers. So the stakes are high, essentially, is what I’m trying to say and we need to look behind the curtain of innovation and behind the veil of flexibility, and see exactly what are these changes meant to do and who is going to benefit from them. So just to give a specific example, a year and a half ago the OIG—the Office of the Inspector General—in the Department of Education did an audit of Western Governors University and found that they hadn’t really complied with regular and substantive interaction. And WGU is what I would call—based on the outcomes it has—decent student outcomes, affordable school, nonprofit, and does not have a track record of any sort of abuses of predatory behavior or anything like that. So it’s a pretty solid school that has a very strong reputation among policymakers. So everybody jumped to the defense of WGU saying, “Oh, no, no, no, you know, let’s be careful here, let’s not penalize them, because maybe they were not in compliance, let’s change the law to make sure that the law complies with WGU, rather than WGU complying with the law.” The point here is though, that while WGU might have been the specific example, changing the law is not only going to help WGU, it’s going to impact everybody. So while WGU might benefit, a lot of bad actors are also going to benefit from such changes. And the results from such a change with bad actors is probably not going to be something that we’re proud of or that we should be proud of. And so in politics and in policy it’s important to look not only at who is the obvious beneficiary of something but also who is the potential beneficiary behind the scenes, and we talk about that in the paper towards the end.
John: What recommendations would you have for faculty teaching online classes or developing new courses or programs in creating high quality online programs?
Sandy: Many faculty members who have a bias against online learning have found when they engage in it that actually it goes very well and their students learn, but those same people are very likely to say that they put more work into the online course then they did into their regular courses. So I would say that faculty should be open to the opportunity but they should not expect it to be just the easy way out, they should be prepared to learn how to teach well in this environment, to be prepared to put their resources and their time into getting to know the students, and into helping the students learn. And it’s quite likely to be a big investment at first, a bigger investment than just continuing your courses. Now we know that faculty members don’t all do a good job in the classroom either. So the idea is not that every classroom course is better than every online course. But faculty members need to understand that this is a big investment and they need to learn how to do it. They need to accept support from people who have experience at doing it well. And they have to urge their institutions to have the goal of doing this right, putting resources into it, integrating—again—personal interaction with the technology, and making sure that the primary goal is not just to save the institution money, but to really create positive learning experiences for students and I think if faculty and the administration share those goals, that there is potential for this to go a lot better. But the there’s a real risk of everybody just looking for an easy way out. I think many people agree on what is important, but they don’t know quite how to do it. And so learning how to do it… doing a lot of studying, examining the successful efforts. And then again, putting the students first is the best advice for people who are developing this kind of learning opportunity.
Spiros: I would only add, as well, for faculty to pay attention to what’s happening right now in negotiated rulemaking, that these changes that are being considered are going to have an impact on education, on faculty. And there are a lot of folks in higher education, who really want to downgrade the role of faculty in the educational process and want to minimize this importance of interaction between students and faculty, and would rather have students interacting with software and calling that an education. So I know that AAUP and others are paying attention to this, but I think it’s important for all faculty to be following these conversations because they have wide ranging implications that really, really impact our daily lives and how we engage in this practice,
Sandy: I think we really want people to understand that what we’re talking about is learning, education, and quality. We’re not talking about sort of making a blanket condemnation, either of technology and online learning or of the for-profit sector, but we are saying that these problems are very evident there and that we have to work this out, acknowledging where they are concentrated.
Spiros: The one thing I would I would say is this. From a policy perspective—from like the thirty-thousand foot level—the argument is that higher education has not been serving non-traditional populations well and that technology has the potential to provide access to opportunity for a lot of these populations. Based on what we found, and the bad outcomes that online education has been producing for these exact populations, I am very, very worried that if we don’t fix the issues identified in the paper, we are moving in a situation where instead of engines of mobility and equality, we are making online education engines of inequality. And instead of helping and addressing the huge achievement gaps and attainment gaps in this country, we’re actually going to be making them even more severe and augmenting them. So from a very big sort of high level, the concern here is that if online education is the tool that folks believe can help close the achievement gaps, is actually increasing those achievement gaps, then it’s urgent that we fix these issues. Otherwise, we are really making things worse instead of better.
Sandy: Yeah, I think that is really our most important point. And if the institutions that have ample resources put those resources into doing a really good job of adaptive learning and hybrid learning and so on, then the gap is going to grow even greater… that students who have had the preparation and the resources to enroll in institutions that do this well will have even better opportunities whereas students who are at risk and are going to the under-resourced institutions that are struggling to really provide the support that they need are going to end up pushed online into courses that are not carefully constructed in programs that don’t serve them well. And the socioeconomic gaps in educational outcomes and attainment are going to grow and that’s what we really want to avoid.
Rebecca: I think that the research that you shared should be really compelling to any faculty whether or not they teach online, to push their institutions to do the right thing to push their colleagues to do the right thing… to push their representatives do the right thing in the regulatory sphere.
John: We’ve already seen decades of worsening economic inequality and reduced intergenerational mobility and your arguments suggest that that’s just going to get worse if online education, which is a growing share of education, continues to widen the performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students.
Sandy: That’s right.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what next?
Spiros: What next? I mean, you know, as with everything, once you you write a paper on something, you do research on something, and it’s not like you switch off the light. We continue being engaged. We recently published a notepad with Sandy in the Chronicle of Higher Education and we summarize a lot of the arguments that we have in the paper. We’re participating in podcasts like yours and events and panels, and we continue to write about the issue and following closely what’s happening in D.C. on this. So I think we’re just continuing to spread and share what we learned in the paper with others, and hopefully, it’s going to have an impact.
Sandy: You know our main interest, I mean online education is one component and one symptom of the issues that we’re interested in. So thinking about access and success in higher education and increasing opportunities is the key. And certainly we expect our research to continue in that direction, but understanding the relationships. I mean, I think that there are a lot of cases where people think that a solution is a progressive solution that will really increase opportunities and it turns out not to be. And how can people understand the difference between something that sounds like it increases opportunity and something that really does increase opportunities is very difficult and very important.
Rebecca: I look forward to following your research. That’s a really interesting and important topic. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us.
John: Yes, thank you.
Sandy: Thank you.
Spiros: Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.