I remember how shocked I was upon finding out that some students were taking all of their classes online–while living in the dorms. Then I was dismayed, too, that the source I learned this absurd behavior from did not even try to pull a Captain Renault out of Casablanca and say, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

I would think that taking all of your classes online while residing on a college campus is akin to watching DVD’s of Rick Steves’ Europe while staying in a hotel room in Paris or Venice and ordering room service.  Make that pizza delivered to the dorm room here in the U.S.

The solution to the problem I have just mentioned is an easy one; don’t allow residential students to take online classes or limit them to one per semester, or if they need to graduate and cannot take a face-to-face class let them go online.

But the problem with online education is much greater.  It is destroying what is the optimal learning experience, a classroom of students that interact with their professor.

I say this after having pioneered online learning at our college when I was fresh out of graduate school twenty years ago and thought online learning was like going to the moon or driving a wagon train in the old west.  I can see now the square disk or two that held my WordPerfect files of lessons and I remember sketching boxes with lines between them on a blank sheet of paper so that I would know which lessons needed to be linked so we could have an online course to offer. That and the use of email became online learning.  And oh how I proselytized distance education, winning awards for my institution.  I did not think that online education was the greatest thing since sliced bread, no, like most people after they have had sex for the first time, I thought I had discovered the world’s greatest thing and only I knew about it and the whole world must experience this wonderful secret I had come to know.

I still teach online, two courses per semester.  But I am beginning to have more doubts about this creature we call online education.  It has become a huge beast and we are losing control over it, at least if we count ourselves among those who care about students getting an education.

One of the problems with online education is the convenience factor.  Sure, I enjoy being able to wear shorts, get some Vitamin D on my pale academic legs stretched out as I sit on my covered patio and read and write as I engage with the work of my students and we trade comments–more mind you, than what happens in many online courses.  And I have the luxury of being able to set aside blocks of time so that I can fully engage with focus.

But I know from experience that students who take courses online, who have been sold on the convenience factor, might glimpse a bit of whatever they are taking online on their smart phone while standing in line at the grocery store maybe. They can squeeze in their learning at times that are convenient to them, which often means right before a deadline or when they are tired and know a deadline is coming up so that they access their online course.  Students are deprived of forced, focused moments that come from a schedule that they must follow, for example, when coming to class, in a face-to-face situation.

I don’t think anyone really needs to make the case that students in a “traditional” classroom (face-to-face is such an ugly, confrontational term, it must have been invented by someone who cares not for students sitting in a classroom) benefit more from this experience than students in the virtual classroom.  While proponents of the virtual classroom pedagogy would be quick to point out that students are engaged by posting messages to discussion boards, how real and how profound is that interaction most of the time?

The convenience factor with online education is that it is going to create an underclass of students and graduates.  Instead of receiving a well-rounded (no need to ask for excuses to use this term) education on a residential campus, many of the online students, if they manage to be self-motivated enough, will miss out an educational experience that appears increasingly available only to the well-off and elite.  Even if future employers do not differentiate between courses taken online or on campus, in what mode entire degrees are earned, many online students stand to gain little more than a task-oriented education.  It is difficult to create online opportunities for interactions that are spontaneous and how can students enjoy virtual banana splits or exercise as they are being sold on what amounts to a fast food education.  Yes, fast food has quality control, but how good is it really for us, even if every person takes the same number of tests and virtually jumps through the required hoops in an online course.  I used to love it when my instructors in the room would move the hoop and sometimes even break the hoop.

So how do we control this convenience factor that equals less quality and an underclass of students?  I am not convinced it is in the interest of most educational institutions to do so.  In an educational system increasingly motivated by profits, it is more about luring away customers from McDonald’s to Taco Bell, and as you are reading this, there is probably an upstart trying to steal away the breakfast business from Taco Bell also (a clever variation of eating your competitor’s lunch), and most students have not been, are not being, conditioned to stop frequenting fast food places.


  1. In reading biographies of many of the greatest leaders of our times, most of them can point to one or more mentors who had a significant impact on their lifelong learning. Many of those mentors were teachers or were in a role where a personal relationship was paramount.

    Will today’s students who are consuming online education have the same opportunities? Will they be missing the opportunity to develop relationships with persons who will become their mentors? Will online education contribute to the passing of wisdom to future generations?

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