The Policy Issues of Online Education

Now more than ever, the attainment of a higher education degree and the acquisition of technical skills are a prerequisite for employment in an increasingly competitive and technologically driven labor market. However, the costs of a college degree are steep. Over the past decade, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for U.S. college tuition and fees increased by 63%, in comparison to a 21% increase for all goods and services. To cover the massive increase, students have borrowed more, increasing the national student loan debt to over $1 trillion. These trends, along with the expanding presence of the Internet and changing skillsets in the workplace, have caused some individuals to seek learning opportunities outside of traditional four-year colleges.

Online courses have helped meet the demand for education, and both non-profit and for-profit universities are taking advantage of the new market. Many universities, including some highly-ranked research institutions, are now offering online or blended-learning courses in conjunction with their traditional programs. Their motive is to increase their revenue and expand their academic reach to more students. Although high-quality online classes can be expensive for universities to develop, they yield profit with higher levels of enrollment. Additionally, online offerings can help lower tuition and fees for students.


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In addition to universities, private non-credit organizations like Coursera and Udacity provide access to online education resources for little to no cost. These organizations offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), allowing hundreds of thousands of students to enroll in a single class from anywhere in the world. A primary advantage of MOOCs is greater accessibility – there is no admissions process or limit to class size, and students have more flexibility in choosing class schedules.


Challenges to online education

Despite the advantages of online education, the medium remains controversial. Critics argue that online learning is not a perfect substitute for a four-year university education, as in-person classes provide a richer learning experience. While online courses focus primarily on academic content, in-person courses allow for peer-to-peer interaction and classroom engagement.

Furthermore, while online courses help those with financial, health, or transportation limitations access education, it can also negatively impact these students by neglecting much-needed personal attention. This is especially true for students who are less prepared for post-secondary learning. For instance, a Brookings study shows that students who are underprepared for school also tend to perform poorer online and are more likely to drop out of online courses. If too many people treat online education as an identical substitute for traditional universities, the most vulnerable students risk falling behind. While some students may succeed in online courses, it may not be the most optimal learning option for all students.


Technological innovation could offer solutions

New innovations, however, can potentially resolve some of these challenges. For example, artificial intelligence can be used to provide personalized feedback and ideal course pacing. These algorithms can analyze an individual students’ academic weaknesses and determine how to remedy them, boosting education outcomes. Recently, courses have become more interactive and flexible to students’ schedules, and education providers continue to provide further customization. Virtual reality and interactive games may offer students a unique method of learning in an online setting. Innovative courses additionally allow real-time assessment and digital collaboration between classmates and teachers who never have to meet in person.


Online Education Slope


Developments in public policy

With the growing popularity of online education, policymakers are reevaluating education policy to promote the benefits of online learning and mitigate the disadvantages. People still debate the merits of online education, but many states have generally increased support for online education. While states have traditionally awarded education credits based on time spent in a physical classroom, many states have recently reversed their “seat time” requirements, resulting in a higher prevalence of online courses. Education is primarily a state and local issue, but the federal government has also benefitted online schools by revising its former policies regarding online education. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education repealed the 50% Rule provision of the Higher Education Act of 1992, permitting institutions that offered more than 50% of classes online to administer Title IV student aid.

Regulations surrounding online education vary by state, but most states have begun to recognize distance learning as a legitimate method of education. For example, while Pennsylvania’s need-based education grant program has previously restricted online students, they introduced a five-year pilot program starting 2013 to research and evaluate potential changes to their policies. These changes in policy have contributed to the rise of online education, and states may continue to develop their policies as more information about the effects of online education becomes available.


The future of online education?

Although online courses may impact traditional brick-and-mortar universities, they will not entirely replace them. A majority of the public still places value on the traditional four-year college experience as a means of achieving the American dream. A 2015 and 2012 Pew Research Center study shows that 60% of American adults are unaware of distance learning, 80% of adults are unaware of MOOCs, and 84% of college graduates believed that both the direct and opportunity costs of attending college were a worthwhile expenditure.

Still, colleges and universities face pressure to evolve due to the viability of online course offerings. Some students believe that traditional college degrees are not relevant to the technical skills that employers are looking for, and employers are beginning to accept alternative educational credentials. Technical and computer science skills are the most popular MOOCs, which reflects the changing demand in the labor market. The Internet can be a beneficial tool to improve educational access and quality. However, we must continually monitor and improve upon online education to ensure that its promises of increased educational accessibility are in fact a reality for all students.

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