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Is Online Education Widening the Digital Divide?

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By Charla Bear

Universities across the country are experimenting with MOOCs (massive open online courses) as a way to make higher education more affordable and accessible to all  students. The premise of MOOCs has, to some, come to mean the democratization of quality higher education, a way of equalizing the playing field for students of every demographic.

"[Students] can take these courses and say, ‘Wait a minute, I can aspire to these colleges, to Stanford, Princeton or Columbia, and therefore I’m going to try to apply there.’” said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, in an interview recently. “We hope it opens the door to a much higher success rate for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Aspirational as that may seem, it may not always be the outcome.

“We ... continue to be concerned that folks might imagine they are getting an Ivy League education, when in fact, they are watching other people get an Ivy League education," says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association and professor of history at California State Los Angeles.


Several professors at San Jose State University began creating MOOCs in January, which students could take for credit. Peter Hadreas, professor and Philosophy Department Chair at San Jose State University, says when administrators asked his department to replace lectures in an ethics class with a Harvard MOOC, faculty saw some questionable race and class implications.

After watching the online Justice course, taught by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, the philosophy faculty collectively wrote an open letter in protest. Their bottom line: it would be insulting to force diverse state university students to watch an Ivy League professor lecture to his affluent class.

“We have a very diverse student body and we’re very proud of that,” Hadreas said. “But they would watch Michael Sandel teach Harvard students and he would interpolate into his talks and dialogues how privileged they were. And they were for the most part, certainly to a greater extent, white than our student body. So we’ve got, on the one hand, this strange sort of upstairs/downstairs situation where the lower-class people could look at how the upper-class people were being educated. We thought that was just flat out insulting, in a way, to the students and certainly not pedagogically reinforcing.”

Hadreas said advocates of using MOOCs at state schools also pay short shrift to the “digital divide” between different races and classes of students. Early into a San Jose State and Udacity pilot project that developed MOOCs for college credit, instructors realized some high school participants didn’t have computers.

“The students who had available laptops at home were clearly correlated with demographic factors," he said. "If you look at the black students, it was somewhere in the 40 percent. If you look at Hispanic students, it was in the 50 percent. But even more correlated was the income of the family. If the family made over $80,000 it was somewhere in the 80 percent. If they made less than $30,000, it was way down in 20- or 30 percent. So the idea that one is simply going to be offering this out and the status of the student’s economic and socioeconomic background is, of course, another myth.”

The problem stems from the idea that, with MOOC courses, one size can fit all, Taiz says.

“The mistake is and the concern that we have is that, I know as this was all being launched, we saw thousands of pronouncements about how after MOOCs get rolling, there will be 10 universities in the country and there will only be five professors giving lectures,” Taiz says. “This is obviously said by someone who doesn’t understand how students learn, particularly students who are the first in their families to go to school and need a lot of hands on.”

In order for teaching to be effective, she says, it needs to reflect their diverse backgrounds and experiences.

“Good solid teaching is nimble and really able to use what goes on in students’ lives to help them get their heads wrapped around what’s going on.”

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