Online courses aren’t living up to their promise to disrupt higher education.
That’s one conclusion from a pair of studies released this week analyzing trends and outcomes of different types of online learning opportunities.
The first, which focused on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered by Harvard University and MIT, found that the majority of students taking these courses don’t return after their first year, that participation in the programs is largely concentrated in affluent countries and that the courses’ low completion rate hasn’t budged much in six years.
The second, a review of research on the outcomes of fully-online degree programs, found that on average, these programs have actually contributed to widening educational attainment gaps between well-off and low-income students without improving affordability.
It’s easy to see why historically some higher education leaders, policymakers and tech evangelists have been so bullish on the potential of online education to transform the college experience. Sitting through four years of classes at a university is expensive and can be challenging for students juggling jobs and childcare with their schoolwork — not to mention impossible for those living far away from a college or university.
But the two reports published this week add to other evidence suggesting that online courses and degrees aren’t making it easier for working, low-income and other students who historically have struggled to get access to college to receive a quality education. Instead, in some cases they may be costing them time and money for a credential that doesn’t do much to help them move up the economic ladder.
“For all that technology can be helpful, often times the hard problems in education remain hard,” said Justin Reich, the executive director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab and a co-author of the MOOC study.
His research found that challenges retaining students have pushed MOOC providers to adjust their business model, which was largely based on the idea that though the courses offered on MOOC platforms are free, some students would eventually pay for a certificate or other document to prove their proficiency. Now, the companies are increasingly focused on partnering with graduate schools to serve as the technology platform for their online-degree programs.
That’s a far cry from the original vision for the courses touted by MOOC providers as an opportunity for students — no matter their economic circumstances or location — to access lectures from the world’s top professors.
One reason MOOC providers are shifting their business model to cater to graduate students: “Those seem to be learners who are a natural fit for who would be successful in MOOC learning environments,” Reich said. “Self-regulated learning on your own is really hard. Often times, people who are most successful are those who have an apprenticeship in the formal education system.”
And yet, the students who are the most at-risk of struggling to make it through online coursework are those most likely to wind up in an online degree program, according to Baum’s report. Roughly one-quarter of students who are enrolled in online degree programs have four or more risk factors for not completing their education, such long periods of time between high school and college, part-time enrollment or having GED instead of a high school diploma.
Just 1% of students with no risk factors for completing a degree are enrolled in fully online degree programs, the report found. What’s more, online degree programs are particularly common in the for-profit college sector, which is often associated with poor outcomes. For-profit colleges enroll just 6% of students overall, but 24% of students in online-only degree programs, according to the report.
“Students who don’t have a strong K-12 background, who haven’t already been exposed to really developing their learning processes, they’re going to be more vulnerable,” Baum said. She’s not advocating dropping online courses altogether, however. “We’re suggesting that you figure out how to integrate technology with the important personal interaction that people need.”
Baum said she’s particularly concerned that Trump administration officials may be looking to water down regulations requiring that online degree programs feature substantial interaction with professors. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed regulatory changes that would make it easier for non-traditional programs, such as those offered only online, to access federal financial aid.
“People are hoping that technology will be the cure all,” Baum said. “Caution about this is just terrifically important. We know that a lot of students are paying a lot of money to go to institutions where they have very little chance of succeeding and if they do succeed in earning credentials they’re not necessarily credentials with labor market value.”
This is a blog from MarketWatch.
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Jillian Berman covers student debt and millennial finance. You can follow her on Twitter @JillianBerman.