​Are We Recreating Segregated Education Online?

column | Digital Learning

​Are We Recreating Segregated Education Online?

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Sep 7, 2017

​Are We Recreating Segregated Education Online?

Online courses helped kick off a movement promising that your zipcode no longer had to determine the quality of education you received. People in rural Bhutan could take a computer science class from Harvard. Students at a community college could supplement their math class with lectures from MIT. A single mom in middle America could learn to code from Google instructor.

However, as more online learning companies raise their Series D funding rounds, and players from Duolingo to Coursera try to figure out sustainable business models, we’ve reached a juncture where we need to think about the issues of equity that come with chasing paying customers. Unless we carefully examine where we put the paywalls and how we cultivate diverse student bodies in our online learning experiences, we risk transposing the same patterns of inequity that have plagued in-person education into our digital classrooms.

Online Learning and Non-traditional Students

Digital coursework has emerged as an increasingly popular pathway for non-traditional students to complete degrees. For populations who never finished college due to the demands of family, work, or poverty, online courses offer a potentially convenient alternative. People can now work through a series of lectures while they commute or complete coursework on a mobile phone between shifts.

Different industries have contributed to the trend. Institutions like Arizona State University have migrated core undergraduate courses online, allowing students to complete them at a fraction of the cost. Corporations like Starbucks and Chipotle have realized that many of their employees are just a few credits away from graduating and now offer online options to help them finish. All of these developments are helpfully disrupting the for-profit college industry that preyed upon low-income students for far too long.

Despite these promising developments, however, vast inequity still persists in the United States education system. We must ask: is designing our next-generation learning tools with such a content-driven focus on academic mastery sufficient to help people break into the middle class, when we know our economy is still so connection-driven?

Content-Driven vs. Connection-Driven

In the first wave of online learning, we focused on democratizing access to content. Now, in the second wave, we’re finding that people are willing to pay for access to people. The most educated consumers are no longer satisfied with just watching online training videos—they want (and fork up money for) virtual workshops, coaching, custom feedback and a network of professional contacts. It’s in part why many of the most highly-regarded online learning hubs right now—IDEO U, Minerva, altMBA, HBX, Udacity Nanodegrees, Stanford’s Business School—place interaction behind a paywall.

Increasingly, you can classify online learning initiatives as falling into one of two major camps:

  • Content-Driven experiences emphasize what you’ll learn. These are the resources that are typically still free like MOOCs, Khan Academy videos, TED videos, and some adaptive learning platforms.
  • Connection-Driven experiences emphasize who you’ll learn with and from. These tend to be small seminar-style workshop classes hosted online—or customized certificate options built into larger online courses. Because there is consumer demand for more human elements in an online learning experience, this is where the business models are moving. To unlock the value of a smaller class size or a coach or graded assignments, you can now pay $19,000 for the Stanford LEAD program, $399 for IDEOU, $199 a month for a Udacity Nanodegree, or $3,000 for the altMBA.

These two models—content-driven learning and connection-driven learning—draw from different philosophies: an assessment-driven camp that conceives of learning as mastery over content vs. the Vygotskian tradition that thinks of learning as something that is socially constructed or done with other people.

The paid premium placed on social learning is not a new phenomenon—middle class parents have long been willing to pay for liberal arts colleges that promise intimate seminars and low faculty to student ratios, rather than dumping their kids into the large lecture hall courses that many public universities offer. Yet, in our current moment, it’s worth reexamining how we’re recreating these educational walled gardens online—as we move from the heyday of MOOCs in 2012 to the gradual decline of open access courseware in 2017.

Specifically, we need to look carefully at how we’re designing undergraduate education for non-traditional students, making sure we’re not just building bootcamps or adaptive learning pathways that focus only on content mastery while neglecting the development of diverse networks. To do this, we need both professors and the admissions office—an entity with the mandate to make sure that we’re building heterogeneous classrooms online instead of just echo chambers.

We’re at a juncture when these two movements—towards democratization of content and access to connections—could either be combined in interesting ways or problematically divide into a segregated system where the paywalls begin to crop up around human interaction in online courses. The risk is that we leave out students who can’t pay in the equivalent of the large lecture hall. The most motivated will master the content, but they won’t emerge with the robust network of peers who could go on to connect them to job opportunities.

Meanwhile, those who can pay get access to the seminar style content of HBX or Minerva—still forming meaningful connections with peers and professors even as they transition to blended or fully online learning models.

The institutions and professors who got into the business of building online courses as a public good are grappling with this shift—even as they recognize the financial realities. Chuck Severance, a clinical associate professor at University of Michigan and Coursera instructor recently posted on Quora: “I…have been opposed to the evolution of the Coursera business model from ‘teach as many as possible and monetize from those who can pay’ to ‘maximize revenue as much as possible, provide grants for those with need, and provide a second-class experience to non-paying students to encourage payment.’ The current model was arrived at in a series of steps that slowly pushed the most valuable bits of my content behind a paywall.”

How do we change this?

  • Add back in some of the friction: When I think about my closest friends I’ve made in school, many of them came from teams formed in really tough project-based learning courses. We need to make sure that online courses still require teamwork and opportunities for bonding with peers rather than just individual mastery.
  • Build scholarships into your business model: If you are building a closed, paid online course consider offering scholarship seats that can be used to diversify the audience and peer group you build.
  • Philanthropists and governments should step up and subsidize access to online learning—realizing that this is where the future of education is headed. I’ve encountered a great deal of skepticism from the philanthropic community about online courses. It’s time to wake up and realize that education is moving into new formats—but needs to be maintained as a public good. This will necessarily require subsidized access.
  • Online learning companies need to build social impact into their business model—and investors should expect to look for a double bottom line. The big online learning companies should avoid locking all their content behind paywalls. They should offer reduced platform hosting fees to content providers building courses for low-income populations. Their investors should also expect these companies to continue to pursue social missions in tandem with profitability.

We’re still in the process of redesigning an education system and there’s constant chatter about “disruption.” But how disruptive can we really get? Can we move beyond democratizing access to content and instead democratize access to strong peer networks, mentorship, and career-accelerating opportunities as we scale education globally? As we’ve learned the hard way from history, our education system is shaped as much by who we let in our classrooms as who we keep out.

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