The state of distance education is in pretty poor shape.  An online class is a lonely, boring experience: most are not really classes, just multi-media textbooks. As a result, dropout and incompletion rates are high. And even worse, learners are turned off learning. Education is reduced to an achievement game. What you pay for is the certificate – the symbol of the knowledge – not the knowledge itself.

The race to monetize online learning has turned into a race to the bottom.  Course providers offer low prices just to capture market share, with little focus on the quality of the experience. Review how online programs are marketed: simplicity of the interface, ease of access, flexible access and deadlines, low prices, and all you can eat monthly subscription plans. Where’s the promise of personal or professional growth? Where is the quality of the learning experience presented? We only the name (and reputation) of the school.  The great schools earned their reputations from the quality of their instructors and the impact of the learning experiences they provided for their students. These reputations are at risk.

If the quality of the education was being offered, we would see different messaging: Where are the performance and retention figures? I bet if the numbers were good, they would be shouted from the mountaintop. Where are the instructor reviews and the surveys of past participants?

Marketing these self-paced online programs is all about reducing marketing friction: it’s easy to buy and in no time at all, you have that degree.  But the degree is not the education. In this case, an online degree is a misrepresentation of an education. Oh, and by the way, “let us help you” get a federally guaranteed loan to buy that virtual degree.  It’s a poor-quality education, and any honest educator or HR hiring professional will tell you so.

These strategies will inevitably take online learning providers down the well-worn path of price wars and choosing efficiency over quality. The only reasons people must complete these courses are 1) to get a certificate for their resume, 2) to check off an employment requirement, or 3) to get reimbursed for their class fees.  These are not good bases for high student engagement and ultimately hurt and reduce the confidence in online education. We can do better.

If you have a basic knowledge of education and education theory, the solution to this problem is easy to grasp. Deeper learning requires interactivity and interactivity requires relationships.  You must be able to test your ideas and new knowledge in discussions with groups, doing challenging projects, and under the guidance of a teacher or mentor.

There are two models in education that come into play here. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Engagement says that to learn more deeply, we need to engage in higher order thinking skills and apply our new knowledge to challenging problems. If we merely read, or worse, skim for answers to the test – like too many kids are taught to do today – we’re not learning; we’re practicing low lift cognitive skills like recognition and recall. We must practice the knowledge, digest it, work with it so that it becomes our own.  We need opportunities to evaluate, analyze, and create.  The typical online class forgets Bloom’s higher order thinking skills and typically stops at recall. This lack of application of new skills and concepts means that the knowledge is short lived and very rarely retained. Constructivism learning theory supports this by holding that we learn by doing, by constructing mental models which build on prior understandings. This model assumes that the learner engages and interacts with the knowledge and skills presented to develop their own understandings. In traveling this path, we put our society’s intellectual capabilities at risk. We are offered the easier path, not the path of growth.

Interactivity is the engine of deep (aka significant or transformative) learning.  We need to fuel the human side of learning, the idea that we learn more by interacting with our peers and our mentors than on our own. We need relationships: you know, those risky, troubling things that just get in the way of getting things done? We need to know that our teachers are credible and that they care about us. For groups to work, there must be trust, mutual responsibility, and commitment. We need each other to hold us accountable, to have our ideas challenged and our successes recognized, to encourage us on. We need goals and achievements, to rise and to fall. Learning requires relationships which must be built anew over time.

If you look at the topics and content of these programs, they are not topics that lend themselves to interactivity.  You’ll see linearly organized content (engineering), and easily measurable skills. You won’t find programs that require reflectivity or discussion. These just don’t fit the model.

These cynical trends are widespread in our society, and if education continues down this path, we will see greater isolation, degraded performance, and resulting alienation. If you look at common societal complaints today, many are rooted in this shift from relational to transactional. Common employer complaints are the lack of soft skills, or what Seth Godin calls “Real Skills.” Our schools have retreated to the defensible tautology of standardized tests; half of the students who drop out do so because they are bored. In our work lives, we are now always on 7×24, stressed and overloaded – with less and less time for family, relationships, and civic participation. Our health care is determined by insurance companies and permissioned by billing codes.  Car dealers are now “haggle free” as if that were a good thing for the buyer?  The barriers to entry to develop competitive businesses are ever increasing, allowing companies to entrench.  The number of publicly traded companies – accountable to their shareholders – has declined by 50% in the last twenty years. Most businesses now limit customer access only to call centers which are in turn automating transactions along decision trees, eliminating or obfuscating the option to speak with a real person, and for some silly reason re-direct callers to their web sites (as if the internet was something new?).  Who will this help?  If a company does not recognize that a customer who cares enough to call in is really trying to help them be more successful, they are missing out on free market research! And more to our point, have you ever tried to contact your local political representative? They are no longer accountable to the individual citizen, but to donors and lobbyists.

To have interactivity in education, we need to have qualified mentors (not just content area specialists), engaged students, student-teacher and student-student relationships, high functioning groups, and clear and well-managed processes. Developing effective citizens with independent critical thinking, decision-making, and personal empowerment that comes with mastery requires an interactive model. This has been the domain of the elite school’s classrooms (Harvard Business school is famously case-based.)  To raise the level of our citizenry, we need to raise the capabilities of citizens – the managers of our democracy. We need independent-thinking, compassionate-yet-considerate citizens. The well-off will still have access to the premium programs, and unfortunately, those with more modest budgets will be tempted to compromise with a flat and superficial online degree program. 

The development of cloud-based SaaS applications and the ubiquity of computing and mobile devices has been accomplished. The business model that got us to the point has served its purpose. It’s time the industry grew out of its compulsive race to be first and start attended to developing and delivering quality. With the tools we have now, we can and will move high-quality, interactive education down to new markets. We advocate a model based on personalized learning, in small groups, with a skilled mentors actively working to build relationships via active efforts and real time meetings. We think this provides the best outcomes for our participants and the most rewarding experience for our mentors.

Recall your favorite class. I’ll bet your story includes the relationship you had with the teacher and the students. The subject may have been interesting, but it was the relationships that helped you grow as a person. Let’s get past our fascination with our new technologies and demand quality educational programs. Join us in creating a new type of learning experience, aimed at providing deeper learning that results in educated, engaged, and empowered citizens.