The cost of a four-year education has outpaced regular inflation by a considerable amount. Student loan debt is causing further financial constraints for recent graduates, and keeping the interest rates on federal student loans only exacerbates the problem. These rising costs beg for higher education reform. In spite of artificially low interest rates and the societal expectation that everyone who graduates high school should immediately enter college and get their four-year degree, there is one phenomenon that neither the government nor society have been able to stop: the rise in online learning. The prospective of more predominant online learning has its allure, and I'm all for providing alternatives to the four-year college to provide better competition in the marketplace. However, the question remains: Is online learning really the way to go in our digital age or is there something qualitatively different about the traditional classroom framework that an online class cannot replace?
Online learning provides a fair amount of advantages, the foremost of which is cost. The development of online learning has been a technological improvement that has increased the supply curve of higher education because overall cheaper technology inputs are being substituted for more expensive labor and capital inputs, not to mention it utilizes the economies of scale to make it cheaper for each marginal unit. Online learning does not have to deal with the same facility, maintenance, and utility costs. Another advantage offered by online learning is the flexibility in time. Students who decide to work in the daytime so they can finance their education, live at home, or still maintain their familial obligations, can do so by deciding to take their classes either in the evening or during the weekend. Very rarely, if ever, will you find a teacher to offer such flexibility in when they teach or hold office hours. Essentially, it is costly to coordinate students and teachers.
Students also have the convenience of learning right from home. No need to commute to class (or potentially no need to relocate oneself to campus), which saves time and money. There are also time savings in terms of the online courses not being repetitive. How so? If a student doesn't understand something in a traditional classroom setting, the teacher has to repeat it, which is a waste of time for those who understood the concept the first time. If a student doesn't understand something on an online course, the student can replay the section, which is a method to help students learn at their own pace.
Much like anything else, online learning does have its downsides. One is a lack of social interaction (although a counter-argument can be made about the quality of interaction of online learning). Classroom learning provides a face-to-face interaction you cannot get with a computer. Plus, why do we want people spending even more time in front of a screen? It seems like intuitive thinking because it's easier for a teacher to pick up non-verbal cues that show frustration or boredom. However, the Department of Education published a meta-analysis in 2009, in which it found that those who performed in online courses fared moderately better than those in traditional classes (see Abstract) and provides a more conducive learning environment (DoE, xviii). As a side-note, I enjoyed this analogy between movie and stage actors with regards to the quality of online learning.
There is also the issue of the digital divide, i.e., Internet accessibility. There are people who do not use the Internet, and their reasons vary. With the overall decreasing prices of computers and the increasing prices of college tuition, I wonder which is less burdensome for low-income and rural students. There are also costs of online learning, which include the costs of migrating the teaching to the online venue, design and implementation costs, as well as maintenance costs. A lot of these costs are upfront, and short of performing a cost-benefit analysis, I will surmise that in the long-run, it will end up being cheaper than maintaining the traditional system.
As nice as the advantages of online learning are, technology has its limitations, and I don't solely mean that if equipment broke down or if the Internet connection is not working. If I had to make a prediction, online courses will complement the college experience to provide the consumer with more options, not completely replace the traditional brick-and-mortar university. It will most likely replace those lecture-style courses (e.g., introductory courses) that have a large enough of a class size in which engagement and attention spans are already problematic, which covers a sizable amount of undergraduate classes.
I was fortunate enough to attend a university where the average class size was twelve students, and there was a lot of social interaction between the professor and the students. For courses that are discussion-style and more interactive, such as the ones at my undergraduate alma mater, the social interaction argument is much stronger because the face-to-face interaction in a class that facilitates discussion is much more effective learning method. Especially in more advanced courses, there is more required than the straight-forward delivery of knowledge. Online courses also cannot replace courses, that require work in a laboratory, e.g., natural sciences, engineering. Even courses in visual sports, dance, art, or music require the usage of facilities, and online learning cannot find away around that. And don't forget the communication-based learning of foreign languages that could theoretically be replaced by online learning, but would qualitatively suffer.
In spite of these limitations, online learning should be implemented where applicable so that we can drive down tuition costs and save time while using 21st century methods to provide the best college education possible.