Will the Online-Education Craze Leave Many Students Behind?

Recently, Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks (@nrookie) posted a thoughtful warning in response to recent adulation for massive open online course (MOOC) websites like Coursera, edX, and Udacity. In Why the Online-Education Craze Will Leave Many Students Behind Rooks writes

“I am concerned that computer-aided instruction will actually widen the gap between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else, instead of close it. This is what has been happening in K-12 public schools. Over the past 10 years, public school districts have invested millions of dollars in various types of online and computer-aided learning and instruction programs, yet few are able to show the educational benefit of their expenditures for a majority of students. Those who benefit most are already well organized and highly motivated. Other students struggle, and may even lose ground…”

I can sometimes miss the pitfalls of technology in education, so these words of caution resonated with me. At first, Cousera et al appealed to me because of the exciting possibility that these sites could leverage social media to improve access to education. Rooks, however, makes some strong arguments that MOOCs will not be a panacea and may even negatively impact underserved students.


The more I thought about Rooks’ arguments, however, I realized that while she makes some good insights, her view of MOOCs’ impact is rather one dimensional. If we look only at the immediate and direct consequences of the “online-education craze,” her argument can be compelling. Yet, if we take a more nuanced approach and look at the secondary and indirect consequences of what could be a tectonic shift in the educational landscape, her argument is less formidable.


One positive indirect outcome is the potential for MOOCs to ease the burden on community colleges. As budget crises plague states throughout the country, community colleges have taken a huge hit. At the same time, enrollment demand at these institutions has increased. The problem grew so severe for California that in 2009-10 the state turned away 140,000 prospective students. There seems to be a real possibility here that continuing education/job skills/hobbyist community college students (ie. the “organized and highly motivated” students Rooks mentions above) could move to MOOCs. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, noncredit earning students make up nearly 40 percent of enrollment (5 million students). If MOOCs go mainstream then this could ease the burden on community colleges and open up seats for underserved students. Of course, community colleges would need to shift their budgets and staffing away from these non-credit courses, but funds could then be allocated toward credit earning students and those who need (or prefer) the traditional classroom model.


As Rooks says

If we really want to democratize education, finding creative ways to realistically open up colleges to different communities will do more to help than a model that, despite its stated intentions, is more beneficial for students who are already wealthy, academically prepared and highly motivated.

MOOCs may not be the panacea today, in their nascent stage, but their indirect impact could lead exactly to the outcome Rooks desires.

Lucas Ames

Lucas Ames

Instructional Designer at Global Online Academy (GOA)

Lucas is an instructional designer at Global Online Academy where he works with teachers to move their courses into blended and online environments. He is formerly the History and Social Sciences Department Chair at Flint Hill School in Oakton, VA. He has also taught at the Miller School of Albemarle in Charlottesville, VA. Lucas blogs at Entrepreneurial Teaching on how teachers can harness innovative skills to be successful in the classroom.