Descartes' Brain-1

Online Teaching Hype – Where is the mute button?

In times of pandemics, wars, and natural calamities, we change our ways of doing and thinking. Sometimes, we come up with a solution that endures beyond the troubled times and makes the world a better place. Think of, radars, microwaves, vaccines, antibiotics, etc. Where does online teaching fall in this spectrum? The covid-19 pandemic has forced many to adopt online teaching, but will it will be adopted widely post-pandemic also? As of 2020, UGC has given permission to 4 universities to run courses that can be completely taught online. Many are hailing it as the next revolution in the educational system. Is it worth the hype? 

What is online education?

There is a range of definitions for online education depends on the extent of online instruction. One end of the spectrum might be a class blog where students post their thoughts (like in my class) to a fully-online bachelor’s degree program, where the student never sets foot on campus. In “Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology”, Michelle Miller divides online education according to USA’s NCAT “standard templates” for redesigning classroom into;   

  • Supplemental model – An online module is added to the existing traditional face-to-face coursework
  • Replacement model – also called “blended” or “hybrid” where part some part of the curriculum is done online, the rest in face-to-face classes
  • Buffet model – the students have multiple options to complete a course, one of which would be online. Depending on the ability and taste of the student, the online option can be availed, but there is an option to complete the course in the traditional classroom instruction also
  • Fully online model – students do not have any face-to-face interaction or a traditional classroom experience at all, all learning happens online
  • Emporium model – The main instruction is done online, but there is a large face-to-face component, but not in the traditional lecture mode. Students interact with teaching associates (not professors) who assist the students to complete the online course. 

[Virginia Tech runs a Math Emporium (http:// www .emporium .vt .edu/), where students are entirely instructed by self-paced programs, with the help of instructors (mostly adjuncts) for a math course. This facility is housed in a custom-built space and serves 8000 students each semester. The result are mixed, some students love it and some hate it.]

Phoenix that did not rise

So, what kind of online education gets the most hype? Those articles that portend a scary future where tech companies will tie up with universities and make universities redundant? It’s completely online teaching. The hype is partly because it’s a radical idea, so naturally, the media gravitates towards such ‘newsworthiness’. Another angle is because of economics. 

The fully online degree originated in the USA in the for-profit model of education, which wanted to increase the number of enrollments and lower expenditure. Overhead costs like labs and auditoriums are done away with. Faculty record standardized lectures and beamed them to thousands of students. 

The pioneer of online degrees was the University of Phoenix with a massive advertising budget, in their heydays (2010), had around 4,70,000 students, who were taught by adjunct teachers (95%). There were no permanent positions, research facilities, or any chance of tenure. In 2017, because of financial mismanagement, the “university” fired all its faculty and their enrollment plummeted. They failed because they spent more on marketing and less on instruction and this trend is acute to online universities. 

The fully online model is used by non-profit universities also, the University of Southern New Hampshire went from a small university to an online behemoth that has around 1,32,000 students enrolled in their fully online bachelor’s degree programs. The aggressive advertising budget was spent 139 million dollars in 2018 and they made a net profit of 133 million for that year.  Marilyn Flynn, former dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, who introduced the first online degree in social work says,

“This is a cash cow, Universities are struggling to find a business plan that works. And I was very aware that we would have a dramatic increase in revenue from this.”

But online education is not cheap. Universities have to spend on hardware and software infrastructure, tech support, curricula development, and instructional design, which are all expensive. Carnegie Mellon spent between 500,000 to 1 million to develop a course to be run without instructors in its “open learning initiative”.  Many big universities outsource private entities called online program managers (OPMs) who do the instructional design and teaching.  Also, there is a monopoly by a handful of companies ( or or ) who charge a percentage of the tuition fee that the university gets. 

That is one of the reasons good online degrees cost the same as normal degrees (yes!). But, other unscrupulous universities charge the same as in-person degree and do not have quality instruction. The University of Phoenix students owe its university 35 billion dollars, one of the highest student debts in the USA. Maybe in the long run, if this model is successful, costs will come down as theoretically one of the allure of online education is that you can milk that online cow indefinitely and not even build a shed for it. 

But, is it effective?

Right off the bat, there are limitations on what can be taught through a computer. Most of the experimental sciences, performative and visual arts are out of the window. For subjects that lend themselves to online learning, studies have shown that students do as well as the face-to-face class. An analysis of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational outcomes show that online students are able to attain the highest level of educational outcome. But, this is through intense faculty engagement, in terms of time and resources. So online learning works, but can it be scaled up? Standardized recorded lectures uploaded on to the web will probably not magically make students learn. They still need quality instructors, good lesson plans and strong pedagogical skills. 

Another assumption is that all students are natural digital learners, the so-called “digital natives”. But that is not true, many students are not comfortable with purely online interaction. Teaching purely through video and audio is an impoverished method of communication and does not work well for many. Apart from academics, social learning occurs in non-academic settings, like debate clubs and sports. These are extremely important for the intellectual, political and social development of an individual. Replacing these things online is quite impossible. Universities are egalitarian spaces where students are exposed to ideas that are progressive and in contradiction with values of their upbringing. In Indian universities, the quality of education is acknowledged to be quite poor, but it servers as a neurtal space of interaction among the rigid divisions of caste, religion and class. How can an online university provide such a service?

The prestige of online education 

Online degree programs can be a game-changer for many who cannot access the traditional university set up. Adult learners, career-switchers, students under pressure to work or with financial burdens will benefit from this immensely. But, we already have a system of distance education. The Indian government has invested resources in correspondence courses, with 73 universities that offer distance education degrees and 40 lakh students currently enrolled in distance education. These universities have coordination centres all over the country and dedicated staff. Wouldnt the next logical step would be to beef up distance education with online tools? 

Correspondence courses in the country have a problem of perception, they are seen as an second-hand degree and brands the student. To understand why perception matters, let’s look at the most extreme viewpoint – that education is nothing but a brand name and there is no real education going on there. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University says that the value of the degree is in the brand value “signals” and there is little useful stuff one learns in university. The degree just signals to the employer that she is “culturally-ready” for the workplace. This is at least partly true for elite colleges like IIT, where students are placed in a discipline based on their rank and most students take up a job irrespective of their training. In this milieu of extreme brand consciousness in education in India, how will online degrees be viewed? Will it suffer the same second-hand treatment as the correspondence courses? 


I think the tools of online education are powerful and incorporating it can enrich pedagogy. But, one has to be cautious in adopting it also and be wary of its negative influences. Will it do what PowerPoint did to teaching? It’s too early to predict.

But they still haven’t proved worthy of slaying the problem of scale. How do we impart quality education for the masses at low costs? Do we forgo the traditional solution of building more colleges and universities and hiring highly qualified teachers?

Scott Gallaway’s who writes that the idea is that universities will become redundant and education will be dominated by hybrid online-offline tech company universities that will increase enrolment (but tuition fees will still be the same!). Somehow, he believes that tech giants will tie up and faculty from elite universities will “string together” a curriculum and sell it to students. 

His views on education revolve around one point – economics. How to increase profits and lower costs. For him, education is something that has to be packed and sold; he writes “There has never been a luxury item that’s been able to garner the type of gross margins as university education”. He is right about one thing “The cruel truth of what pretends to be a meritocracy but is a caste system is that your degree largely indicates or signals your lifetime earnings.” 

But online education in the hands of tech billionaires is not going to change that. Unless they give free degrees like a Facebook account. But then the difference in education will be the difference between a hug and a hug emoji 🙂

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