Online education can be good or cheap, but not both

July 26, 2013

During his recent economic address at Knox College, President Barack Obama briefly referenced the promise of online learning. Specifically, he celebrated the fact that some colleges are “blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time,” a development that holds great potential to contain the rising cost of higher education. Yet this potential is still a long way from being realized, as demonstrated by a recent hiccup at California’s San Jose State University.

Like many of America’s public universities, San Jose State has struggled in recent years to increase its graduation rate. Only 8 percent of students who enrolled as full-time first-years in the fall of 2003 managed to complete their bachelor’s degree in four years, a share that climbed to 46 percent over six years. For students who enrolled in the fall of 2005, the numbers barely budged, with 7 percent finishing in four years and 46 percent finishing in six years. San Jose State has an ambitious plan to increase that share, which includes San Jose State Plus, a new effort to harness the potential of online learning.

The San Jose State Plus initiative is a wonderful example of innovative public sector thinking. Rather than build new online courses in isolation, San Jose State partnered with edX, a non-profit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, and Udacity, a highly-regarded education startup, to create courses that were rigorous, accessible and cost-effective.

But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. The courses — in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach, as they covered basic introductory material. Outsourcing this kind of teaching could in theory be an enormous boon to the bottom line of colleges and universities, as the most effective providers could spread their online courses across the country, sparing the need for large numbers of expensive faculty members. Indeed, Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.

The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing, and the startup is committed, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, to learn from its mistakes. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.

But what if there is no free lunch to be had? That is, what if the only way to reduce the failure rate in online courses is to blend them with some of the more labor-intensive — and thus, more expensive — aspects of traditional education? Recently, a good friend of mine — a tenured academic who has the good sense not to publicly weigh in on higher education controversies — suggested that “massive online open courses,” better known as MOOCs, represent the logical culmination of a long-term trend in higher education. As the higher education sector has increased its reach, it has been recruiting students who are less prepared for rigorous instruction and less committed to completing their degrees than those who came before them. Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist and co-founder of Marginal Revolution University, a popular massive online open course, has argued that U.S. higher education institutions already reach the easiest students to teach (the “low-hanging fruit”), and so efforts to expand higher education access means reaching students who either face serious obstacles to graduating or who are otherwise less inclined to stick around. It is no coincidence that while only one-fifth of college enrollees failed to complete a degree in the 1960s, the number has since increased to one-third.

At the same time that the higher education sector is taking on tougher-to-teach students, it has aimed to use labor less intensively. Elite liberal arts colleges that offered a great deal of personal attention and hand-holding gave rise to large land grant universities that offered somewhat less personal attention and hand-holding. State schools, in turn, gave rise to community colleges, which offer still less of both, which in turn left room for for-profit higher education institutions that eagerly recruit students with minimal preparation for college-level coursework while offering them hardly any personal attention or hand-holding at all. With each step, higher education has in a sense become more inclusive. Yet with each step, the institutions in question also see a higher attrition rate.

By way of illustration, consider the four-year and six-year graduation rates at a few California colleges and universities. For students who entered Stanford University, one of America’s most prestigious and selective research universities, in the fall of 2005, 79 percent graduated in four years while 96 percent graduated in six. At highly-selective but public UCLA, the numbers were 68 percent in four year and 90 percent in six. At Cal State Northridge, a considerably less-selective land grant public institution, 13 percent graduated in four years and 46 percent graduated in six. Pierce College, a community college located in California’s diverse San Fernando Valley, had a 23 percent graduation rate over three years for its associate’s degree program, and 13 percent succeeded in transferring to four-year colleges. The for-profit University of Phoenix of Southern California, which prides itself on its accessibility, had a four-year graduation rate of 2 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 15 percent. You get the picture.

True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions, where interaction with senior faculty is limited but there is a human support system for students. It should go without saying that the latter are going to be much more expensive than the former.

One way of thinking about higher education, and education more broadly, is that once you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme. The irony, of course, is that the students who need help and hassle the least, like the super-well-prepared and super-eager undergraduates at schools like Stanford, tend to get the most personal attention and structure. The students who need help and hassle the most, like ill-prepared community college students who are not entirely sure that an associate’s degree is worth much in the way of time and effort, tend to get the least personal attention and structure. To some extent this is simply a numbers game: trained professionals are scarce and expensive, and the number of students who haven’t been well-served by their families and by their K-12 schools is depressingly large.

I have no doubt that online education is going to get better over time, and that innovators at places like edX and Udacity will find ways to better combine labor and technology in ways that will help contain higher education costs. But we shouldn’t expect miracles. Somehow we need to come up with better ways of engaging the large number of young Americans who aren’t destined to complete a bachelor’s degree, and who might need less in the way of help and hassle when they’re being offered real-world, job-specific skills. Until then, be very skeptical of anyone who promises that online education is going to make it much cheaper to educate struggling students.

PHOTO: A student uses her laptop computer on the steps to Memorial Church at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder 


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Mr. Salam,

You are (and educators) are “fighting the last war”, not the current one.

Look around. Society is doing more and more with less and less people. The “college for everyone” industry is increasingly a cruel joke that CANNOT GUARANTEE GRADUATES that they will ever be employed in their field. They will soon be like the technical or law schools whose graduates are unable to find employment appropriate to their skills.

There has been a “sea change” in our society. There is no such thing any more as a “job”. There is only a “need”, or not.

The need for millions and millions of Girls Friday, Secretaries, Administrative Assistants, stock clerks, bookkeepers, draftsman, designers, Project Coordinators, and the like…all good-paying middle class jobs with a “future” has disappeared. Not “offshored”. Not “outsourced”. Just GONE. FOREVER!

Inexpensive computer/software availability and implementation and “just-in-time” production shipped directly to points of sale have eliminated countless warehouses as well as an incredible amount of unnecessary inventory, loading and unloading.

There is a joke that soon the crew of every airliner will consist of one man and one dog. It will be the job of the dog to attack the man if he tries to touch any of the controls in the cockpit.

It should be obvious that the United States will have NO NEED or JOBS for the numbers of graduates you and our institutions of higher learning speak of. The “quick study” students that don’t NEED “hand-holding” to progress to graduation in six years today very well may be able to graduate in four years in the not too distant future.

It is logical that “MOOCs” have the potential to allow these “best and brightest” to complete the “six year degree” of today in four years relatively soon (with a 33% lesser student loan burden as they enter their professional careers).

There is already a cruel joke about a graduate with a Masters Degree going to McDonald’s for a job interview. Returning a friend asked if he got the job. “Nope, every other applicant had a PhD!”.

Like it or not, this is the future that is on the way as sure as night follows day.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The common denominator of online education for both the student and the educator is to save money. Garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive


“The common denominator of online education for both the student and the educator is to save money. Garbage in, garbage out.”

I see. So people should not go to Walmart “to save money”. They should not buy generic Rx to save money. They should not form co-ops to save money. They should not try to make government more responsive, accountable and efficient to save money. When there is not enough tax revenue, they should not demand that bureaucrats prioritize “needs” for available funds to save money.

In your view trying to get the most for available dollars is an exercise in futility and suspect in overall intent; perhaps even greedy? The answer is always to raise taxes to whatever is “needed”?

It would seem extraterrestrials have taken over your mind for purposes as yet undisclosed.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

This article has made a number of associative leaps and assumptions. So much so that it is an effort to unravel the missives, so my comments are limited to my online learning experience as well as an opinion on outsourcing online learning.

Online learning is dependent on a foundation of extremely strong communcation in the course design, text, instructor’s delivery and feedback of the material as well as the underlying IT infrastructure.

I did my technical diploma program entirely online through a well established Canadian college; graduating with the top of my class. My successful completion of the program was in part determined by self-discipline, time management and great peer teamwork both online and in person. I am not a “low hanging fruit” type, but have been frustratingly hindered by responsibilities, time constraints, socioeconomic roadblocks, assumptions and prejudices. I am documented as blessed with higher than average ability, and it is likely that many of my online peers were the same and hindered in similar ways. Many were moms or working persons with responsibilities, thus unable to afford the living expenses to go to school during the day. Yes, just because some people are bright doesn’t mean the world is their oyster. Bright people, good kids, can be held back by societal hinderances, time contraints, being on the wrong side of the tracks, and most particularly by stereotyping and assumption. So please nix the “low lying fruit” assumption. It screams “superior” and I don’t know often I’ve run into superior attitudes of persons too dim to comprehend they’re dim, but have been well positioned or dealt with gracefully. It doesn’t go unnoticed how often nonsense is observed coming from the mouths of the traditionally educated.

Many do not do well with “lecture” only style delivery. That style is a hinderance to fully absorbing material for many. Lecture style also demands observing a set time schedule. With online delivery one can take advantage of when their biorythm is truly at “awake” and/or “on a roll” to maximize learning. Online delivery allows for flexible, efficient use of time, not to mention reduced commute and bus fare. Online learning is Strenuous. You need to know your stuff to pass testing. With proper IT design and limits, Cheating is far less likely than traditional learning/testing. Well designed online learning has the potential to produce a damn good quality product.

With online learning it is all the more evident that communication is a two way street – Outsourcing increases communication slip-up risks. My program was not outsourced. The College’s own instructors designed and taught the courses and customized in-house online platform, which was in turn maintained by the College’s own IT staff. This ensured greater integrity with regard to standardized successful Instruction methodology, lesson standards, seamless and efficient, user-friendly delivery as well as quick feedback and correction to online-specific hiccups.

In my view, outsourcing online learning is too removed from an institution’s educational standards and control. Outsourcing learning hinders quality, success and seamless accurate communications on both sides of Server.

Posted by takeapill | Report as abusive

Education, online or not, should be both good and affordable. In a democracy, education is a right, not a privilege.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

OneOftheSheep’s comment is spot on and brilliant, but I must give my “two cents” to add:
The writer has not addressed nor mentioned one of the major online and accredited schools: Penn Foster, old name “ICS” which has had graduates accepted at MIT! The founder of Chrysler took what they used to call a correspondence course through that very school. They have some useful programs, some Bachelor programs and some technical: telecommunications engineering, down to dog grooming. No, I do not work for Penn Foster nor am I associated with them in any way, except as an ex-student.

There is a stigma attached to the old “correspondence schools” that need not be- some consider it a fake school. During the 1920s/30s it was very popular to take correspondence classes- why not make it popular again? Penn Foster IS accredited, and a very good school. I know, I’ve taken a class through them and it was not easy.

The correspondence/online class I took through them WAS cheap, and it was good. They offer some excellent programs, many classes prepare the student for real life jobs: home inspector, auto/motorcycle repair, HVAC technician, even High School Diploma. The school started as “ICS” in 1895 in Scranton, PA and an interesting history is provided on it on the University of page ” By the first decade of the twentieth century, over 100,000 new students per year were enrolling in ICS courses; by 1910, a million cumulative enrollments had been achieved; and, by 1930, four million. By World War II, ICS’s reputation was such that it was given the War Department contract to develop the department’s training manual”

Don’t knock online courses, and don’t knock low cost schools! You CAN have both- just choose a GOOD school with a proven history, not those for profit online schools with advertising heavily geared toward the stupid demographic, while they gladly offer “help” with crippling loans, and worthless diplomas in fields that neither require classes nor require any sort of certification.

Posted by Flifla23 | Report as abusive

@OOTS, you’re just being argumentative. I didn’t mention taxes, politics, generic prescriptions, etc. Get a grip, man.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

There is a documentary that has been shown several times of the guy (wish I caught his name) who developed online math training (the most boring subject ever) and had a fabulous reception both in quality of learning and quantity of students. As is often the case with new paradigms, we can learn the most from successes than from frequent failures – contrary to the popular mythology about learning from failures.

Another problem that has existed for decades is that so many teachers are resistent to using information technology and the technophobes seem to outweigh the technophiles. This is changing, but at a snail’s pace.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

There is a documentary that has been shown several times of the guy (wish I caught his name) who developed online math training (the most boring subject ever) and had a fabulous reception both in quality of learning and quantity of students. As is often the case with new paradigms, we can learn the most from successes than from frequent failures – contrary to the popular mythology about learning from failures.

Another problem that has existed for decades is that so many teachers are resistent to using information technology and the technophobes seem to outweigh the technophiles. This is changing, but at a snail’s pace.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive


“Argumentative”? Typical female emotional pseudo-response. Critical thinking should have a foundation of consistency and logic. Yours clearly does NOT!

If there was actually some point to your earlier silly comment followed by “garbage in, garbage out”, please share it. It most certainly is not “self-evident”.

By their words shall ye know them.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Everyone has the right to an education that is affordable. That is why there is By placing a video of yourself on you social pages, facebook, twitter, linkden, etc. you proceed to ask if people would like to donate funds to your education. This is called crowdsharing. Great concept. Kind of like spread or pass it along. No outstanding loads for the new college student who graduates, and not interest gains for the banks! These kids will have a brand new start to pursue their careers, the dreams to own their own homes and to start a family. Is that not the hope of the American Dream? Let us get on track again folks – visit

Posted by jacque1 | Report as abusive

Here is a great solution to fund your education. Check out It is a great site to check out. IT is a way of obtain funds to go to school, buy books, nee money for projects for school and not take out one penny from the bank or better yet have to pay them back. So please, take a moment and review this site.

Posted by jacque1 | Report as abusive

Well many comments.
ONLINE is here for 21 years. 7 million students are taking now for degrees paying $ 1,500-2,000 peer course.
Now there is GOOD ONLINES ( GOL ) by elite schools at a small fee but not degree yet .
Within 10 years all schools will be closed 2 million teachers and faculy will be jobless whatever you say today . It is supply and demand law. Nobody can stop it .
In 10 years only only 100 or so research universities will be alive and provide GOL for degrees at $ 10 per course or $ 400 per BA degree from elite schools.

Posted by parmakcocuk | Report as abusive

There are two issues; how education is delivered and how prepared the student is for survival in that method. The more fundamental question of what an education consists needs to be answered as a prerequisite of this discussion. The debate between MOOC or traditional methods of delivery is secondary to the preparedness of the student.

Why are students ill prepared for post secondary learning, regardless of method? The answer lies in what society requires of secondary education. I have no studied view for an answer. But have the observations of a parent and grandparent. I’ll state some in an argumentative form hoping that they will engender further exchange.

Nobody fails; not in the sense of do it again until you get it.
Students are similar so one method suits all learning.
Taxes are too high and teacher’s unions too demanding.
Kids live in their own society where they are pandered to.

That should be enough fuel

Posted by GeneR | Report as abusive


You mentioned reducing failure by blending online and traditional education.

Down in Austin, Texas we’re about a year into that experiment with high school graduates who hadn’t planned to attend university. We’ve enrolled them in an online degree program and hired residential tutors to live with them and coach them through school. It’s been hard, but we think a blend’s feasible long-term and more cost effective.

Grateful for your interest in the subject and the comments from the folks who have weighed in.

Hudson Baird
Executive Director

Posted by HudsonBaird | Report as abusive

I am not convinced. As someone who was educated ‘Ivy League’ in my own country and later begin to crowdsource a broader education I can say the quality of the second is the better one in what it actually teaches. This article seems to focus on struggling students and failure rates but is unable to tell the difference between causation and correlation – perhaps you crowdsource some education on statistical basics.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Very well put @OOTS. The tough question is what are we going to do about it? Perhaps a small start, to slow the unemployment, would be to reduce the work week to say 30 hours so more people can be employed. Of course there would need to be more of those evil social plans too. Planning for the next three generations is tricky eh?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive


The increasing tendency to hire part timers is already lowering the number of hours in the “typical work week” tabulated and you’re right again, in that more people are thus employed for the same amount of work.

No one seems to be working our how to live on thirty hour’s worth of what these jobs typically pay. No easy answers of the sort people want to hear, and no economists yet explaining how to raise the standard of living in times of low or no economic “growth”. Sigh.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@oots said “No one seems to be working our how to live on thirty hour’s worth of what these jobs typically pay”

That is because that’s your responsibility. instead of one low paying job and doing overtime. You now do two 25-30 hour jobs.

/and please don’t complain , I know multiple successful people who actually do two salaried positions for two different employers because they excel and can do “40 hours of work” in less than 30 every week thus earning 6 figures. Because the standard productivity in most jobs is a joke.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

Online courses such as the ones available under edX are most welcome in my part of the world. I regularly visit MIT Opencourseware too.

I agree with the comment that in democracy, education is a right not a privilege. Unfortunately, in my country it has become more of a privilege. Rich kids have access to all top notch institutes (even if their scores are avg or below) while kids from certain section do not have access to these institutes even if they score 90% and irrespective of their financial background. If they are financially weak, they have no scope. Some of these kids are luck and migrate to the US or Europe on scholarship. Most suffer mental agony for rest of the life.

edX will break the monopoly of these institutes and make other dumb universities (pvt ones set up to make money) run for cover.

I welcome the online universities wholeheartedly.

Posted by MukeshRao | Report as abusive

As an eLearning Developer and Assistant Professor at a Community College, I can confidently say that “it depends.” My institution is working on improving it’s attrition rate. Therefore, I polled each student that failed or dropped one of my courses in the Spring 2013 semester. Of those students that responded, the following reasons were given:

* they took too big of a load
* Their employment situation changed and interfered with their studies
* There was a family crisis.

None of these reasons were due to the instructor/student relationship or to the quality of the online course. We live in a society were people have to work while they go to school.

Also many students are not prepared for college work. Either they didn’t get the education in HS or they are returning adults and haven’t been in an academic environment for a dozen or more years. Either way, the community college has to help a student get from where they are to where they way to be in a two-year period. With some students, that’s possible. With others, not so much. Stop trying to fit all of education into a tight little understandable bundle.

Each student is different. They all have their reasons for succeeding or failing at reaching their goals. To say it’s because of online learning, is failing to understand what’s really happening.

Posted by dalerrogers | Report as abusive