The Continuing Controversy Over Online Education

This is part three, the last of the series. We have interviewed a number of educational professional school counselors and coaches about the difficulty of getting into college and whether the standards for admission are as tough as in the past.

This week, we look at our experts’ answers to the following question: Do you believe that alternatives, such as online education or a combination of online courses transferred to an accredited college or university , may represent a solution for some students? Under what circumstances would you consider recommending college-level or online AP courses before applying?

The response is clearly mixed. And this is only to be expected.

Distance learning has a long and spotty history. Before the days of the Internet there were correspondence courses, and this muddied the waters from the start. There was no way teachers could provide the necessary feedback through the mails. “Educational” companies would simply mail out course materials and grade the students on essays. Exams would be given by supposedly neutral proctors (i.e., friends of the student in question), who would simply sign a statement stating the tests were fairly administered. Multiple choice and one-word answers were typical fare.

Needless to say, there was no real way to audit any of the results, and a near-complete lack of contact between students and teachers resulted in highly questionable results. Some “mail-order degrees were no doubt worth (somewhat) more than others, but the sad fact is that distance learning got off to an extremely dubious start.

As the American Journal of Distance Education tartly observed, “While little more than a century old, correspondence courses have become a fixture in the media of American popular culture. References to correspondence courses and schools frequently appear in films, novels, short fiction, and plays… As time passed, the correspondence school became a metaphor for seediness, marginality, and incompetence… 1

When online learning became available through the introduction of the Internet much of the stigma of the fly-by-night mail order college was “transferred” to Internet colleges. Traditional educators are predisposed towards the brick and mortar colleges where they received their own education. It has been an uphill struggle for online learning from the start.

It is not until the recent widespread availability of high-speed Internet connections that online learning has been able to overcome the framework imposed by educating from a distance. According to the Sloan Consortium, “The rapid growth of the Internet and the needs of a mobile society have made OLEs [Online Learning Environments] very attractive options to those seeking higher education. It is quite likely that this trend will increase during the next decade. … The increasing access to high speed Internet communication has made resolving the problems with OLEs critical to today’s educators.”2 Tightening budgets and overcrowded classrooms have indeed caused many colleges (and state governments) to begin turning to online learning to pick up the slack, and recent technological advances have enabled that. Rather than investing money they don’t have to develop their own capabilities, many schools are also partnering with existing online providers to deliver courses to their students.


1 Von V. Pittman, Amateurs, Tough Guys, and a Dubious Pursuit: Crime and Correspondence Study in Popular Culture, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992 http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol6_1.htm

2 Jim Clark, Collaboration Tools in Online Learning Environments, The Sloan Consortium http://old.sloanconsortium.org/publications/magazine/v4n1/clark.asp

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