Online Education is Great if You’re Already Privileged

It’s not surprising that people are stupidly exuberant over a new way of using the internet, without any clear idea of its consequences. It’s even less surprising that Thomas Friedman is declaring it a “revolution” without considering the probable outcomes.

He’s talking about online learning. There are many different ways to learn online, but Friedman is talking about Coursera, a for-profit company that will offer Stanford lectures free, with homework, testing, grades, and a certificate of completion for a low price, online. Universities including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale have been offering classes online, for free, for some time, reaching millions of people. Many companies offer technology classes online under different business models. The startup Codecademy gives super-slick lessons on JavaScript and HTML/CSS for free. Lynda does paid subscriptions to video tutorials on different computer programs and languages. And you can always find YouTube Photoshop tutorials by infuriatingly smart 13-year-olds.

I like learning things online. It’s made me a lot better at my job and given me skills that’ll help me find better jobs. But I was born to a family with the means and education to make a 4-year college an easy choice if I put forward a bare minimum of effort.

Before I got my first job, my resume had some big exaggerations. I listed Photoshop, Final Cut, and programming as skills, since I was pretty sure I could pick them up if I needed to. My degree though, those details had to be completely accurate. Maybe I would have still been hired if I left off the fake skills. But I needed the degree to get in the door. Everything else I learned later, online.

“When you consider how many problems around the world are attributable to the lack of education,” efforts like Coursera’s are going to be massively good, Friedman says. But knowledge and skills don’t get you anywhere in the U.S economy. Distinguished credentials do.

A degree in political science prepares you with some small amount of knowledge that you’ll use at a job, about the same amount that a person could pick up in a few months of dedicated independent study. But the degree is essential. Even 4 years of self-study would likely not get you a job. An engineering degree program surely teaches more that will be used on the job, but the degree is required proof that you know it well. You need a degree to get into law school not because the content of your undergraduate education is going to make a difference, but because it shows your ability to be chosen in a competitive application process and complete some kind of study well.

If schools and employers are looking for competition and distinction, the popularity and low barriers to entry in online learning will be a curse to students who spend time or money on it. Entry-level positions are starting to list a bachelor’s and a master’s as requirements, as more students finish undergraduate degrees and their value is diluted. What distinction is going to come from getting an A in the online machine learning class of 100,000 students that Friedman describes? Worse, grading is “on the honor system but [Coursera] is building tools to reduce cheating.” The distinction factor of excelling in Coursera is going to be zero.

Coursera promises to help connect successful students with employers, but it’s hard to see why an employer would hire a Coursera student over the masses of unemployed recent graduates. Friedman mentions the University of Phoenix as a pioneer in online classes, which is more apt than he thinks.

For-profit colleges like Phoenix are under fire for delivering poor outcomes for students’ money, meaning graduates can’t find jobs. We’re already dealing with a system of for-profit higher education that feeds off of the very popular idea that people with no job prospects just need more education, takes from their limited funds, and leaves them right where they started. There are already so many ways for people with little education to spend their time and money getting educated. Some, like the community college system, seem to prepare their students for this economy better than others. It seems like low-income people today need to obtain more and more education just to keep out of complete destitution.

The unemployed and poor of the United States must be the best-educated in the nation’s history by an incredible amount, but they are stressed to undertake still more training to adapt to an economy that doesn’t want them. We’re facing crisis-level barriers to comfortable, secure jobs. But acting like new technology that provides “just-for-fun” liberal arts learning and technical skills that’s only useful for the already comfortable is going to solve those problems is irresponsible.

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