Kevin Carey is getting a lot of attention for his just published book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. The Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program landed in both the New York Times and on NPR’s Fresh Air the week his book came out. That’s good. Carey’s book focuses on changes online learning will bring to higher education, an area generally under-explored in public discourse about the condition of college. The world of online learning Carey explores, though, is dangerously limited. He tools through rarified stratospheres: MOOCs, with the name-brand educational glamour of players like Harvard and MIT; the strategically titled “personalized” learning software of the future; and Silicon Valley, where billionaires are poised to make education technology the Next Big Thing.
There’s a wider world of online learning that Carey ignores completely. The heavy lifting of online education is being shouldered by community colleges, which serve about 45% of U.S. students. Two out of three community college students take at least one online class a semester and these students are nowhere near the technology-driven “world-class” education Carey imagines. Even if they were, they would be unable to meet its demands. Why? Community college students are too busy working to log sufficient study hours; while US Census data for 2011 shows that 72% of all undergraduate students worked, that number shoots up to 84% on the community college campus. Of these, 60% clock in more than 20 hours a week, a number that the American Association of Community Colleges identifies as a threat to college completion. No surprises there.
Despite working so much, about a third live in poverty; a little more than that number are parents or have dependents. According to the Community College Research Center, a community college is the first choice for 44% of new high school graduates whose families earned less than $25,000 a year, but only for 15% of freshman from higher income families. Although economic constraints are these students’ most unifying and defining characteristic, also notable is that 42% of community college students are the first in their families to attend college; “first generation” students often struggle to find their footing on college’s foreign terrain. Additionally, that very category ‘first-generation’ implies a homogeneity that doesn’t exist. Students born and raised in the United States can be first-generation, as can their legal and undocumented immigrant counterparts – adding even more layers of obstacles for both students and teachers.
Only about 30% of community college students leave with a degree: the rest fall to the wayside. Their success online is equally middling, as methodically mapped by Barbara Means, Marianne Baka and Robert Murphy in Learning Online: What Research Tells Us About Whether, When, and How. The authors note that the flexibility of online college actually attracts the vulnerable, the students busiest with work and family demands. With no time to get to campus, these students sign up for an online course only to discover they have no time for the coursework at all. Many are also underprepared; anywhere from 42-75% must take at least one developmental class, and some also lack the independent study skills and technological literacy online learning requires. In sum, most of our current online college students are strapped perpetually thin. They have little in terms of family, time, skills or finances to fall back on in a crisis. College is often the first thing to go—particularly if ending that chapter is as simple as never again clicking on a link. Accordingly about 30-40% of online students fail to complete their courses.
Carey’s book has an emancipatory tenor; he predicts an easily accessible, credential-based higher education that is lean, mobile, flexible, affordable, and available to all. Sounds great! Odd, though, that this egalitarian vision is so firmly –only—rooted in Carey’s stance among the elite. He turns to the MOOCs coming from MIT or Stanford, and Silicon Valley to find the building blocks of this egalitarian future.
Unlike Carey, I work in online education every day. I teach online at a community college. This terrain is quite different than Carey’s and it’s hard to see beyond the socioeconomic fault lines that structure my students’ lives; these are the same fissures that have created a two-tier system of higher education (and increasingly, of American life), one for the elite and the other for everybody else. Students don’t drive to Cambridge and move into their dorm rooms only to log in to class; they walk across campus. But by default or desperation, community college students are the ones seeking an education at the keyboard.
I agree with Carey that technology is bringing radical changes to higher education but I don’t see any such parallel transformation in the day-to-day conditions of students’ lives or in their college preparedness. Bring the bells and whistles if you will – please! I’ll be happy to use them in my online courses. But until my students can turn to the laptop with their bills paid and children fed, they will not have the time or focus to benefit from the latest innovations in education technology. At the moment, about 60% of these mostly employed people are taking at least one developmental course; until most, not less than half, of community college students are fully college-ready, technology’s intellectual bounty will remain beyond their reach.
Public discourse on higher education has never been more popular. Carey’s book is one of many in the past few years to tackle the power, promise, and failures of American education, and the only one to adequately position the significance of online learning. The conversation he’s continuing, however, remains focused primarily on the upper-crust of our culture, whether that’s the big stakes Ivy admissions game or the technological shimmer of Silicon Valley. But any analysis of online learning must center itself elsewhere, at the level of the community college where most online college coursework is happening, and where most students struggle and few graduate with a degree. Those tragic facts should be central to the public discourse about the world of online learning.