Club-Admiralty

v6.2.3 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Is "online learning" the new "community college"?



Me, pondering
OK, maybe the analogy isn't totally clear to you, so let me explain my context. 

When I was in high school (mid-to-late 90s) the advertised (or expected) path after high school seemed pretty clear to me: go to college. There were really no "buts" about it, and there were no gap years considered (those were luxuries that well-off people had since they had money to burn). It was an expectation, from guidance counselors, from teachers, from parents, maybe even from society. Higher education was the path to a good middle-class life, and people were willing to take out loans to go to their dream school in order to achieve this goal. This was a pretty important goal for my parents considering that neither one of them made it to university and I'd be the first in the family (maybe even my broader family) to do this. No pressure, eh? ;-)

One thing that seemed like an underlying current was how dismissive some (many?) people were about community colleges at the time. I had never really thought of community college as an option because of jokes like this one:

You better do well in __(subject)__ otherwise, you'll be attending Cape Cod Community College!

I don't know why CCCC was the butt of the joke for this particular teacher in high school, but the frequency of such jokes (and the virality of them between students) definitely left an impression of community college being a consolation prize, rather than a fantastic (and comparatively cheaper) educational resource! Imagine how much money would be saved if students decided to complete the first two years of their higher education studies at a CC and then transfer into another school! Or graduate from CC and then go into university with advanced standing. From what I know, in my local context, CCs were (and are) commuter schools.  You don't live on-campus at a CC. Compare that to some big-name school in Cambridge (Massachusetts) that my folks wanted me to apply to that required first-year student to stay in the dorms if they wanted to attend that school.

Anyway, I diverge from my point I started with.  The main idea here is that CC, although valuable, was constantly dismissed.  Fast forward to our current pandemic-world.  Students are suing universities for the return of their tuition and fee costs. Nevermind that some of these law firm pitches sound a lot like ambulance chasers, let's dive down to the core:  Universities have been pitched as a place where people go to explore subjects and topics; a type of free-range learning. This is true for both undergraduate and graduate education. 

In recent years, what you saw in university advertising tended to be anything but the learning.  Learning objectives?  Snore! learning outcomes?  yawn!   Rooms with lavish wood paneling?  Noice!  Parties?  Awesome!   Spring fling dances and cookouts?  I'm there!  When you consider the marketing message of the modern university which focuses on amenities, it's not hard to see why people are pushing back against the price tag.  If you paid for a Cruise in the Bahamas, why would you "settle" for the Holodeck?

What's hiding behind those amenities is the promise of a free-range learning environment where you too can learn and be inspired by the greats!  The reality, though, is that you aren't really in a free-range learning environment.  When your tuition and fees cost $60,000 per year (or more), a wise student would do a reality check and see that it's not free-range learning, but rather a prix-fixe menu (in many cases), and students pick X-many courses from column A, Y-many from column B, and Z-many from column C to graduate as soon as possible.  The longer you stay, the bigger your bill!

Conversely, in online learning, where you don't have the striking visuals of campus life and all the non-academic distractions you are forced to start with the learning outcomes.  You need to assess programs based on the outcomes, and you need to advertise based on the transformative experience of the learning and what sorts of careers you are prepared for, not the extracurriculars.   However, it seems, that prospective students (and their parents) don't have metrics by which to assess programs on their learning outcomes, so lacking the social visuals or metrics offered by a campus experience, they dismiss online education; much like how CC education was dismissed by the relevant authority figures in my teenage life.  I think that for-profit schools also have not helped with the reputation of online learning, but talking about "zoom university" and framing educational costs as an all or nothing is also not very productive.  Education is valuable.  I would argue that education at $60k/year was never valuable to people like me, first-generation students, but I hope that more people are teasing out what matters in education. I hope the medium doesn't impact the message in this case.  And I hope that dual-mode universities finally put some support behind their online offerings beyond the classroom.

Your thoughts?  Do you see a connection between online learning and the community college in how they are talked about?

~AK

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