The politics of online learning

Written for AFT On Campus by Richard D. Kahlenberg

For conservatives, the embrace of MOOCs kills two birds with one stone.

Proponents of online education—from Stanford University President John Hennessey to Hoover Institution researcher Terry Moe—speak of it hitting education with the force of a “tsunami.” Presumably, they are referring to some kind of “good” tsunami,(1) the type that produces creative destruction from which we all eventually benefit. But if implemented poorly by politicians who are looking to educate students on the cheap—always a distinct possibility—we will all suffer, poor and working-class kids particularly.

Politically, online learning presents a highly seductive model for state legislators because lawmakers are told it can promote equal opportunity and save money at the same time.

On the one hand, online learning, specifically massive open online courses, are said to be the great equalizer, giving community college students access to Ivy League professors, and providing students from India or Somalia the chance to take great classes. (Two-thirds of MOOC students are international, proponents note.(2)) And low-income students who must work full time while attending college will have the flexibility to take classes at hours that fit into their schedules, supporters say.

On the other hand, digital learning holds the promise of reducing costs in education because professors can tape a series of lectures once, rather than spending time each year giving the same performances over and over again. And a professor has the chance to reach hundreds or thousands of students without the need to heat or maintain a single classroom.

State appropriations have already dropped as a share of revenue at public colleges and universities, from 32 percent in 1980 to 18 percent by 2009.(3) For state legislators, the idea of being able to reduce higher education funding even further—and claim they’re actually improving opportunity for kids—is an irresistible proposition. This may help explain why the proportion of students taking online classes has mushroomed from 10 percent in 2002 to 29 percent in 2009.(4) These enrollments have particularly increased in community colleges.(5)

Too good to be true?

But is this storyline too good to be true? Yes, according to the strongest research. Online learning can produce positive outcomes for students, but mostly when colleges “flip the classroom,” coupling online lectures with face-to-face active learning sessions with professors, which rarely saves money. By contrast, low-cost, fully online courses tend to produce negative outcomes for students, particularly for those who are underprepared to begin with.

Shanna Smith Jaggars of Columbia University, for example, found in a 2011 study of 51,000 community college students in Washington state that completion rates were 8 percentage points lower for students in online classes than for those in traditional classes.(6) Moreover, in a separate 2011 review of 36 studies, Jaggars found that on the equity issue, fully online classes “may hinder progression for low-income and underprepared students.” She concluded, “Overall, it seems that community college students who take online courses are more likely to withdraw from them and that this tendency toward withdrawal is not due to the measured characteristics of those students.”(7)

What works for students: Adult involvement

More positive results are found in “hybrid” classrooms, where online learning is supplemented by face-to-face sessions with professors. According to economist William Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, a randomized trial experiment of 600 students taking a statistics class at Carnegie Mellon University found that students taking an online class supplemented by weekly in-person question-and-answer sessions did just as well as a control group taking a traditional class.

Because flipping the classroom still involves face-to-face meetings between professors and students, however, it does not necessarily save money. According to Bowen, flipped classrooms “can even lead to higher costs.”(8)

Unfortunately, state legislatures are choosing to fund inexpensive rather than high-quality online classes, particularly at two-year colleges. Three-quarters of community colleges offer fully online classes, while only 15 percent offer the hybrid variety.(9)

In some ways, the enthusiasm for inexpensive online education today parallels the fervor among legislators for community colleges in the 20th century. Lawmakers greatly increased the number of two-year institutions with the twin promises of expanding opportunity and saving money. Community colleges did open up access to higher education for millions of students, but the reduced expenditures allocated for instructing and supporting community college students—about $6,000 less per pupil in 2009 than for public four-year students—are also associated with reduced outcomes.(10)

While more than half of public four-year college students graduate within six years, students at community colleges complete at much lower rates. Federal data suggest that 81 percent of first-time community college students aspire to a four-year degree, yet only 12 percent reach that goal in six years.(11) Some of that gap is explained by the inadequate preparation of students at the K-12 level, but careful studies have found that controlling for preparation, race and socio-economic status, a community college student is between 15 and 30 percentage points less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree than a comparable student who begins at a four-year college.(12)

Online learning represents the community college model on steroids. Because of inadequate resources, community colleges must rely more heavily on adjunct professors, who have less time to guide and counsel students—to the detriment of students, research finds.(13) Online learning removes the adult influence to yet another degree, which hurts low-income students especially. As educator/writer Thomas Toch has noted, the lesson of high-performing high-poverty elementary and secondary schools is that disadvantaged students need more adult involvement and more structure and guidance, not less.(14)

What works for conservatives: Defunding

Yet as a political matter, the push for cheap online classes is likely to accelerate, fueled by conservative ideology and private interests. Conservatives, who want to reduce the size of government and dislike labor unions, see online classes not only as a way of cutting public spending but also as a weapon to reduce the influence of organized labor. The Hoover Institution’s Terry Moe, who wrote a book titled Special Interest, equating teachers’ unions with tobacco and gun lobbyists, gloated in the Wall Street Journal that the cyberrevolution in education “will inexorably weaken the unions, sapping them of members, money and power.”(15)

Moreover, for-profit corporations see a big opportunity to make money off of expanded online learning in higher education. Though for-profit operators boast very low student completion rates, they are poised, Salon magazine notes, to “use their political leverage to secure a legally privileged place in the system.”(16)

It is no accident, writes journalist Andrew Leonard, that “the three horsemen of the MOOC apocalypse” are the deeply conservative governors of Florida (Rick Scott), Texas (Rick Perry) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker). The trio is using online learning to justify massive cuts in state spending to higher education in search of a $10,000 college degree.(17)

Even Bowen, who calls himself a “convert” to online learning, has expressed concern that his advice about the benefit of hybrid classes will be ignored in favor of cheap cyberlearning models that are used to “justify a further defunding of public higher education.” Bowen writes: “Recent pronouncements by the governors of some states lead me to worry that the assumed promise of online education—and the overhyped promise of extremely rudimentary online education that lacks any face-to-face component—could do real harm. States will be tempted to use relatively inexpensive online programs to serve the less-affluent, less-prepared segment of potential college goers.” The result could be “an ever more bifurcated system of higher education in the United States.”(18)

Faced by an array of anti-union, anti-tax and for-profit interests, supporters of a vibrant system of higher education will need to form alliances to redirect the future of online learning to models that improve opportunities for students. Those most likely to be hurt by inexpensive online education—low-income and minority students—do not have the political power to withstand the storm by themselves. A new coalition needs to emerge that embraces technological change in a way that will strengthen, rather than weaken, the democratic promise of education in America.


1. William G. Bowen, Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) 136; Terry Moe, “The Internet Will Reduce Teachers Union Power,” Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2011.

2. Bowen, Higher Education in the Digital Age, 154.

3. Bowen, Higher Education in the Digital Age, 19.

4. Allen & Seaman, cited in Shanna Smith Jaggars, “Online Learning: Does It Help Low-Income and Underprepared Students?” CCRC Working Paper No. 26 (Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, January 2011), 1.

5.Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas,”CCRC Working Paper No. 54 (Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, February 2013), 1.

6. Ryan Brown, “Community-College Students Perform Worse Online than Face to Face,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2011.

7. Jaggars, “Online Learning,” 2, 4 and 17.

8. Bowen, Higher Education in the Digital Age, 64.

9. Jaggars, “Online Learning,” 2.

10. Donna M. Desrochers and Jane V. Wellman, “Trends in College Spending 1999-2009: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go? What Does It Buy?” (Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, 2011), figure A2, 52-57.

11. Laura Horn and Paul Skomsvold, “Community College Student Outcomes 1994-2009” (NCES, 2011), tables 1-A, 5-A and 7-A.

12. Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream (New York: Century Foundation Press, 2013), 31-32.

13. Desrochers and Wellman, “Trends in College Spending,” 30; Century Foundation Task Force, Bridging the Higher Education Divide, 37.

14, Thomas Toch, “In an Era of Online Learning, Schools Still Matter,” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 7 (2010): 72-73.

15. Moe, “The Internet Will Reduce Teachers Union Power.”

16. Christian Exoo and Calvin F. Exoo, “MOOCs: Corporate Welfare for Credit,” Salon, October 28, 2013.

17. Andrew Leonard, “Conservatives Declare War on College,” Salon, February 22, 2013.

18. William Bowen, “The Potential for Online Learning: Promises and Pitfalls,” Educause Review 48, no. 5 (2013).

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, served as executive director of Century’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal. He is also the author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.

Reprinted from the Winter 2013-14 issue of On Campus


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