Does Online Education Widen Offline Gaps?

23 Sep

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor, via Getty Images

By Anna North

The value of online education at the college level has been a subject of much dispute. But at The Daily Dot, Cabell Gathman considers the role of the Internet in teaching high school kids — and raises larger questions about how online resources might amplify some inequities even as they lessen others.

Ms. Gathman argues that Texas standards for textbooks (which can affect books sold across the country) are unduly influenced by conservative politics, resulting in a poor educational experience for kids:

“People of color, women, and LGBTQ people go largely unrepresented in these books, but more than that, students don’t just learn ‘facts’ that are demonstrably incorrect (60 percent of Texans are having a hard time with the whole ‘dinosaur’ thing), they also absorb a general sense that the current blatantly unequal state of affairs that surrounds them has no connection to the past: It just is.”

Might online materials fill the gaps left by Texas books? Ms. Gathman writes approvingly of resources like the Tumblr blog People of Color in European Art History and Anita Sarkeesian’s videos on female characters in video games. And, she adds: “In my own university courses on social inequality, I’ve started using Tumblr to provide supplementary materials to interested students. The students who excitedly reported sharing class readings with parents and roommates are thrilled to have a steady feed of additional content in a format that is easy to push to their own social networks.”

But there’s a problem. Ms. Gathman writes that while online resources can help her teach about inequality, social-media sites can act to reinforce that inequality, too. Not everyone has Internet access, and those who do remain vulnerable “to the same forms of oppression that permeate our face-to-face lives, with the virtual veil of pseudonymity that so often results in abuse.” She concludes, “Tech is often posited as the solution to everything in digital spaces, and in this environment it provides demonstrable resources, but it is clearly only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing the shortfalls in U.S. textbook standards.”

Her analysis recalls the longstanding debate over massive open online courses (MOOCs) and whether they’ll benefit higher education or destroy it. Also at The Daily Dot, Matt Saccaro positioned MOOCs as the solution to America’s higher-ed problems:

“Post-secondary education in the United States depends on MOOCs succeeding, as the country can’t bear another generation of debt-ridden dolts. There’s nothing you can learn for $30,000 on a college campus that you can’t get on the Internet for free.”

However, he also notes that “MOOCs have failed to make education accessible to the masses.” He cites a report by Fiona M. Hollands and Devayani Tirthali of Columbia University Teachers College, who argue that “most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed, and only a small fraction of them fully engages with the courses. Overall, the evidence suggests that MOOCs are currently falling far short of ‘democratizing’ education and may, for now, be doing more to increase gaps in access to education than to diminish them.”

[ Full article available at The New York Times: ]

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Posted by on September 23, 2014 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed


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