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Given What We Don’t Know, Blocking Fully Online Degrees Was Right Call

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Not quite a month ago, the University of California system officially banned awarding fully online degrees by requiring students to spend approximately one year of a four-year degree in classes that are at least 50% on campus and taught in a classroom.

It’s a big development for a few reasons.

The first is that University of California system is big – encompassing ten campus schools and nearly 300,000 students. By enrollment, it’s larger than the three biggest stand-alone schools put together. The system also includes some big brand names such as Berkeley, UC Davis and UCLA. So, when it says, “no, we will not offer an online degree,” it matters.

The second big reason is that California’s intentionality in affirmatively barring fully online degrees may underline a thoughtful debate the education community has yet to fully have on the comparative quality of online versus in-person learning.

The truth is that we have no idea.

We don’t know whether an online course or degree is on par with an in-person one because no one has rigorously studied the question to a research standard, mostly because doing so is both incredibly complicated and time consuming.

There is evidence to suggest that there’s little to no difference between online college and on-campus college, from an academic perspective. But that evidence is pretty easy to pick apart. Many, for example, look at grades or competition rates as outcomes, which ignore that if the online content is simplified or cheating is rampant in online courses (which it is), then the online grades and competition rates will be inflated. In other words, saying that online students in a freshman accounting course average an A- while those who studied in a classroom earned a B+, is not necessarily an endorsement of the online option. It may actually highlight the problem. Likewise, surveys that ask students to rate their online versus in-person classes are pretty useless. Neither method can address academic quality or learning outcomes.

There are also studies that show online learning is deficient when compared to its in-person counterpart, especially if the students require remediation or are academically behind. But with few exceptions, these studies are lacking in rigor too.

On the scorecard of public perception, there’s little doubt that online programs and degrees still lag. They may be closing ground reputationally, but they’re not there yet – no doubt compounded by the frequent scandals and failures of the for-profit colleges which overwhelmingly offer exclusively online degrees.

Even studies that are cited to show that online degrees are viewed more favorably these days end up highlighting the challenges. This one asked c-suite leaders about the issue in hiring preferences. In that study, while 55% of c-suite leaders said that online and in-person “credentials” were “generally equivalent,” nearly three in ten (29%) said that “credentials earned online are generally lower quality than those completed in-person.” Only 16% said “credentials earned online are generally higher quality than those completed in-person.” The results probably would have been more lopsided had the survey asked about degrees instead of “credentials,” which are kind of nebulous.

And that study was done after the pandemic started, when mega-scale online learning was supposed to have favorably changed perceptions.

Despite the lack of compelling evidence – or much evidence at all, really – some educators and pundits insist that the idea is settled. News coverage of the California decision, for example, sourced “experts” who said the decision “perpetuated outdated claims about online learning.” In reality, the claims are not outdated. They are not dated at all – they have never actually been accurately tested. Quality differences and outcome disparities have certainly not been studied enough to be dismissed as settled fact.

And honestly, it’s pretty shocking that we simply don’t know the difference between online and in-person teaching and learning models. Maybe online simply does not measure up. Maybe it’s better. Maybe there’s no real difference at all, allowing online modalities to expand the reach of education and level-up access without reservation or hesitation.

Considering the billions of dollars invested and the millions of students currently studying online, and that online college programs have been around for more than 30 years now, we’re all still just assuming nearly everything. We just assume they’re fine because the costs and consequences of being wrong about that would be educationally catastrophic.

It’s as though fully online college is going away. It’s not.
But because the entire enterprise is built on assumptions, the University of California system is right to refuse to go blindly into the unknown, to insist on at least a little face time when earning a degree that carries their name and endorsement. We could all stand to go a little slower, say no a bit more often, when we realize we actually know so very little – especially when so much is on the line.

Originally posted on Forbes on March 23, 2023.