Online is the Target

The growing focus of regulatory activism is on online learning itself

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2023 was a heck of a year for those interested in online learning in the US, with all kinds of new regulations and executive actions (and newsletter posts) coming out to fundamentally impact the delivery of online learning.  But 2023 was just a warmup, a sideshow. This is because OPMs and for-profits are not necessarily the core focus of the Department of Education (ED) and its aligned activist organizations seeking to shape higher education. What is becoming more clear is the focus is online learning itself.

Growing prevalence of think tank funded research critical of online learning

We have seen a slew of think-tank funded research focusing on online learning, understood as courses and programs offered completely online (i.e., at a distance). Some of the research is good, some of it is bad, as seen in this partial list.

Credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Concerns about online learning

This research and the articles reporting on the research tend to raise four related concerns, or claims.

  1. There is a lack of transparency around online learning.

  2. There is a need for accountability when it comes to online learning.

  3. Students undertaking online learning are often not as well supported as those on campus.

  4. Online learning can lead to adverse outcomes for under-represented groups (e.g., students of color).

I don’t know anyone in the online learning community who is opposed to transparency, accountability, better support for students, or reducing differential impacts.

Where folks who work in online learning differ from some of, but not all of, the researchers cited above, is that they know that a lack of transparency, accountability, and good outcomes across all groups are characteristics of on-campus learning as well. Where the people running, supporting, and yes, researching online learning differ is that they understand that teaching and learning is a complex and difficult undertaking, especially when you are trying to do it at scale in a new modality. The online learning community would argue that the task ahead is not to say let’s just retreat to on-campus learning, which also lacks transparency, accountability, has problems with support, and has varying outcomes across different demographics. Instead they would say (and many are already engaged in) let’s improve online learning and its outcomes.

I don’t for a minute think online learning is going to go away. That would be like trying to ban the motor car after the invention of the internal combustion engine. But I do worry that ED will use this research and this public handwringing to put forward new regulations around online learning that stifle innovation and reduce access while not addressing the underlying areas for improvement.

Do we need to do more research into the challenges and implications of online learning? Absolutely. But it needs to start from the assumption that online learning is something many students want, expands access to higher education, can and usually does produce as good (and sometimes better) outcomes as on-campus learning, and is not going away.  Instead of flinging accusations of “predatory access” to institutions as different as Harvard and HBCUs, we should instead identify where problems exist and come up with solutions to address them.

The online learning research agenda we need in higher education

I agree with the activists that there are a number of issues in online learning that need to be addressed. This is not likely to end soon, but rather is part of an ongoing process of improvement. While more transparency would be great (on a personal level it will make my job as a market analyst much easier) and accountability is sorely needed at all levels and modalities of higher education (the abysmal graduation and retention rates of too many institutions should be a hair-on-fire emergency), these characteristics are in a sense byproducts of more fundamental problems. A healthier approach specific to online would focus on two issues that are core to online learning and to the pathologies afflicting online learning in the US. If we  address these issues well, we also go a long way to addressing transparency and accountability.

Quality online learning

How to define, measure, make visible, and promote quality in online learning is a key challenge. There are organizations like Quality Matters who do a great job (one of their key members is one of my go-to people for advice about online, and she has forgotten more then I will likely ever know about the topic), but we need a more through and frank conversation about what quality looks like and how to represent it to students so that they can make good choices. Too often we use lazy shorthand instead of good analysis, like for-profit bad, not-for-profit good, or we take people’s word for it that what they are producing is high quality. Similarly, we assume that all students are nerdy ex-social scientists (or engineers) that enjoy wading through opaque data sets like the College Scorecard to identify good versus bad programs. We need more easily digestible ways to represent quality.

Improving quality in online learning will need to involve people researching online learning, the institutions offering the learning, professional associations (such as QM, UPCEA, Educause, etc.), accreditation bodies, think tanks, and government. We need to approach the issue with a willingness to share information and to admit where things didn’t pan out as expected. This is a big ask and will require a big cultural shift, but it is vital for improving online learning.

Marketing online learning

This is the 800 lb. gorilla that needs to be tackled. The current situation where colleges and universities often spend obscene amounts of money on Google and Facebook ads and on marketing in general needs to stop. What the solution is, I don’t know, but it needs to be the focus of research, conversation, and best-practice in the online learning community. Changes in either norms or rules may mean that some institutions who have been relying on online learning revenue to keep the lights on may have to restructure or even close. But the current situation is untenable with too much money spent on marketing.

Parting thoughts

Online learning isn’t going away. But we are facing an onslaught of adverse opinion and publicity. This will increasingly be reflected in regulations and guidance coming from the Department of Education, state legislatures, and accreditation bodies. In future posts I will describe how this will happen, using the playbook we saw used for OPMs.

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