Online Programs Don't Always Expand Access to Higher Education, Report Says

Low-income students often lack access to necessary technology, in what's called the "digital divide."

A new report suggests online programs block access for some students who can't afford the necessary technology.
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Still, online students face another obstacle to access to a quality education, the report says, with a lack of interaction between students and instructors and between classmates.

"Peer-to-peer interaction is really important because it builds a sense of affinity, that I'm part of a group and that I'm not isolated," LeBlanc says. "Because you can feel isolated as an online learner in a poorly-designed program."

[RELATED: Three Ways MOOCs Will Change Colleges]

Taiz says that type of learning environment can be created when online courses are smaller in size, not much larger than what would typically be expected in a 20- to 30-person class on campus, or when instructors use massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a supplement to a class, rather than a stand-alone platform.

Oftentimes, Taiz says, students and faculty are critical of MOOCs because large class sizes make it more difficult for students to interact with their instructors and with their classmates.

"To create a class around a MOOC, even an Ivy League MOOC, our [state university] students aren't getting an Ivy League education," Taiz says. "They're watching other people get an Ivy League education, and that is just not appropriate."

"You might as well have them watching TV for it," Taiz added.

An important factor in online students' learning in MOOCs is what other students are also taking the course, LeBlanc says. The nature and quality of students' discussion and whether they're challenging each other academically, is critical to recreate what MOOC students are missing out on while watching an Ivy League lecture: interacting with other students to help you "up your game," LeBlanc says.

Still, LeBlanc says he doesn't think MOOCs will be "game changers" in higher education, although they do offer useful content and flexible learning platforms.

[SEE ALSO: Americans Doubt the Rigor and Quality of Online Education

"The MOOC craze is starting to fade a bit, it's coming back to Earth," LeBlanc says. "I think we should root for them ... And if they provide better content for free, and if they provide better learning platforms for free, then we're all benefiting, if they do nothing else."

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