Online education is #trending.
There are TED talks, a wildly popular inspirational and educational lecture series with the tagline, “ideas worth spreading.” There are MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offered by the finest universities in the United States. And don't forget iTunes U, which aggregates it all in one easily navigable platform.
You can study Roman architecture with art history majors at Yale. You can immerse yourself in economics at webcast.berkeley. English not your first language? No problem — the OpenCourseWare project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has online offerings in Chinese, Korean, Spanish and more. Tight on cash? The aforementioned institutions provide their open, online courses for free.
It's a remarkable world in which an 18-year-old in Mongolia can flash his intellectual prowess in an engineering class taught by a Stanford University professor. It would seem that for the highly-motivated Internet-connected individual, there is no limit.
Still, as exciting as it is to watch the digital education race play out among the MITs and the Berkeleys of higher education, online learning has real-world limitations.
That kid in Mongolia might outperform his peers in Palo Alto, but he won't receive any credit for his efforts. He could ace every course in Stanford's online catalog without a prayer for a diploma. (That will cost him tens of thousands of dollars and one hell of an admissions essay.)
To be clear, there are countless for-credit options. My colleague Kelly Corrigan reported last week about online classes at the community college level. Some campuses already have well-developed programs. Others are more modest. Glendale Community College is taking a tempered approach to building out its online curriculum. Currently, the 1,800 classes offered include 80 online-only and 161 hybrid classes.
These are a terrific option for some degree-bound students, but it is clear they don't work for everyone.
Last fall, the success rate among students — meaning those who earned at least a C — enrolled in online-only classes at Glendale Community College was 63.3%, according to Mary Mirch, vice president of instructional services. The success rate of students in traditional classes was 71.6%.
During the 2009-10 academic year, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, the success rate for all California community college students in online classes was 57%, as compared to a success rate of 67% for traditional classes.
A study published last month by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that certain student subgroups, including males, younger students, blacks and students with lower levels of prior academic performance, had more difficulty adapting to online courses.
Add to that the fact that Latino and black students are less likely than their white counterparts to have high-speed Internet access at home and you see that online education could perpetuate the achievement gap.
“This is troubling from an equity perspective,” the authors concluded. “If this pattern holds true … it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity.”
The mission of public education in the United States is to provide every student with the knowledge and skills needed to flourish, creating opportunity regardless of socioeconomic status. Online education is one way to advance that mission. I think of the many community college students with family commitments, long work hours or physical disabilities. I think of the high-achieving teenagers who want to bank college credits before graduating high school.
But there is no one-size-fits-all in education.
Glendale Community College officials are smart to grow their online education program with their eyes wide open. It will require specially-trained professors, self-motivated students, a whip-smart IT staff and constant reassessment.
With those components in place, the program can be built into a vehicle for student success.
Now that is a trend to get excited about.
MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.