My Beef with Online Learning (at for-profit schools)

People aren’t going to like this post, but frankly, it needs to be said: Online learning is a terrible idea. Especially at for-profit schools. (And yes, I have experience being an online and ground instructor while working for a very popular for-profit school.  I did this during grad school to earn some extra money. It was a terrible, terrible experience, but the details of that are for another post)

Wait, wait wait. Before you get outraged, allow me the opportunity to explain why.

1)      Online learning is not about learning; it is about degree attainment.

Most people who enroll in online classes do so because they have a very specific goal in mind. This is often the attainment of a degree just to say they have it and feel accomplished, to get a raise at work, to take a few classes they need to get into a specific program or school, or to cure boredom (this is common in retired adults). The motivation is not intrinsic, nor is it focused on task-goals. Research clearly states that individual’s learn more when they actually want to learn. But hey, if you just want a degree on paper…this is the way to go.

2)      Online learning is primarily student-led.

What I mean here is that online learning is asynchronous, which means students do their work when they want. They log on, review some slides, answer some questions, post some questions, and turn in their assignments when they are due. Where is the instruction? For those who don’t know, instructors at for-profit schools (as most online schools are) are handed a curriculum to post. The learning goals, assignments, grading rubric, powerpoints, and text are chosen by the school, not an instructor. Frankly, the instructors don’t do much besides post and grade.

3)      Online learning is a waste of money.

I was outraged to learn that students at the school where I taught paid $10,000 a year!!!! IT IS NOT WORTH THAT! People, you can read some texts and teach yourself that information. Or you can attend your local community college or state college for less. Where is the value for that kind of money? What exactly are you paying for? Some powerpoint slides you can find online? Mediocre feedback given by instructors with little time for you after they work their full time job? Interactions with your ‘classmates’ via email and phone? What skills are you learning? How is your content knowledge being assessed? Do you even know if your instructor is qualified? Most of all, what are you getting here that you couldn’t get on your own? A lot of these schools aren’t even fully accredited. So many past students have emailed me saying that after all their effort, they still can’t get hired. Perhaps this is because while you may not know it, businesses know that online degrees just aren’t ‘worth’ as much as traditional degrees.

4)      Online learning is about convenience.

Let’s be honest. People take online classes because they are convenient. Most people enrolled in these courses are non-traditional students. They have full time jobs, a family, are older than 25, and frankly don’t have the time to go to classes on a strict schedule. Online courses allow people flexibility to fit schooling into their lives. Basically, this way, school doesn’t have to be a priority (because for many people, it can’t be a priority when you have a family to care for). My question to you is: if you aren’t investing in your learning, why should we invest in you?

5)      Online learning occurs in isolation.

Some online classes require students to do projects together. Rarely do these people actually physically meet one another. What do you do when you have a question? Do you email your instructor and wait 12 hours for him/her to respond? Do you even care about the answer at that point? There is little discourse in an online class. There are few opportunities to discuss content with your classmates, learn from their experience, understand their perspective, challenge their assertions. Yes, you can theoretically do this through an online discussion forum, but if it’s not in person, you lose tone, body language, and immediacy. You lose the affective components that make an educational experience ‘real’. Are those things necessary to learn? Absolutely not. But research assures are they are a critical aspect of an educational experience.

6)      Online learning is rarely rigorous.

Let’s be for real. These institutions are about making money. Their goal is to enroll and keep as many students as possible. They are hesitant to give you too much criticism because you may feel discouraged and drop out—taking your money with you. This is probably the aspect I struggle with most. When I was an instructor, I gave a lot of feedback (positive and negative) to my students. Then my Dean told me I was giving too much feedback and overwhelming the students. He advised me that faculty must use the ‘sandwich’ technique when giving feedback so that there is always twice as much positive as negative feedback. Uhmm, it’s not my job to make students feel good. It’s my job to help them learn.

Additionally, creating powerpoint slides, writing papers, and taking tests are hardly difficult things to do—especially when everything is conceivably open book. Where is the assessment there? And I’ve seen these rubrics (both during my time teaching and as I observed friends and family take online courses). They are hardly asking you to do much. If you write coherently and include 80% of what they asked you to include, you get an A. Hmm, in my class an 80 is a very low B-.


Okay. I know some of you are itching to comment. I encourage you to do so. But allow me to make my last point: My anger about online learning is not directed at the students; it is directed at the institution. These are the people who know they are giving a low quality education to a demographic who may not realize it is low quality. They are taking advantage of students who need to get their degree and cannot do it any other way. This is a business. Supply and demand is clearly at work. They will charge as much as the market can bear and give as little product as possible. Why would they not?

I am not saying don’t take an online course. I encourage the attainment of knowledge and skills. What I am saying is to better investigate the quality of the education you are receiving. For those of you enrolled in online courses where you feel challenged, supported, and most of all, where you are acquiring knowledge and skills…well done. I ask you to spread the word about your school so that others can also have an intellectually substantiated degree.

*Note. I in NO way believe that all traditional college courses are of high quality. Many suffer from similar issues as those outlined here. And I would say that those classes are also a waste of money.

An interesting article in the NY Times on for-profit colleges



2 comments on “My Beef with Online Learning (at for-profit schools)

  1. […] to 5% for private college graduates (I have another post outlining my distaste for online learning: My Beef with Online Learning […]

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