Blog Post

Can We Really Learn Online? Response to NYTimes on Wall Street's Digital Learning Enterprises

Anyone who thinks I'm a knee-jerk proponent of substituting online learning for face-to-face interactive learning hasn't read Now You See It, where my heroes are inspiring, passionate, engaged teachers, many of whom augment their classroom lessons with online assignments or, conversely, who amplify all the kinds of learning their students accomplish on line with real-time, face-to-face dialogue and interaction about the importance, meaning, and implications of digital learning.  I thought about all of these issues today as I read what seems to be an excellent expose of the contrast between the dismal performance of online schools for the students versus the quite remarkable financial performance, on Wall Street, of these same schools.  As one researcher notes:  “The kids enroll. You get the money, the kids disappear."  Apppalling.   The only one who profits there is the investor, not the students.  And certainly not the former teachers!


So that is the key question:  is the motivation for online learning enriching an online experience more and more of us are having and finding new and inventive ways to learn?  Or is the real motive enriching share holders, even if it is at the expense of real learning?


Here's the superb article by Stephanie Saul:   "Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street than In Classrooms," by


Before we pronounce about online learning versus face-to-face, we have to make distinctions.   Here are seven key ones (that also happen to be some of my personal pet peeves in this whole debate):

(1) Dropping expensive technology into classrooms without changing the rules, models, methods, or content of the learning experience.   From Saul's article, it sounds as if at least one of the for-profit schools is not only doing this but is doing it on the cheap.  One $$$ gadget is cheaper than a teacher's salary.   Except if you measure against future learning, future jobs, future possibilities for a creative, productive adult life.


(2) Assuming that the real reason to substitute technology for real teaching is because it saves money--or, worse, it helps make money for investors.   Appalling.  This reminds me of the 1990s when private corporations began investing in prisons, when the prison workers' unions not only became powerful (and very well paid) but active lobbiests on behalf of mandatory sentencing laws, and whole segments of society began to tumble into cycles of poverty and incarceration at someone else's expenses.   Then, equally tragically, it turned out that the for-profit prison-industrial system wasn't even making much money for investors.  Are for-profit schools the next gambit?   Appalling.


(3)  At the same time, luddite teaching that pretends students are not spending lots of time online when they are not in school strike are simply irresponsible.   Teachers who teach for their past instead of their students' present and future are as narcisstic as those who simply believe the job is done by dumping the technology in the classroom.  Indeed, it's a similarly insular thinking--an assumption that the "job is done" when one is not doing the real, hard, painstaking, involved work of engaging students in their hearts and passions and imaginations and helping them to learn to thrive in the world they have inherited.


(4)  Teaching as if face-to-face time weren't one of the most precious of gifts and finding ways to make the most of that extraordinary experience of collective, communal learning---what, at HASTAC, we call "learning the future together."    I have said before that, if we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.   By that I mean if you offer nothing more as a teacher than a computer screen, then you are wasting everyone's time by being there.  On the other hand, if you are creative, engaged, interactive, relevant, and attentive, no computer screen will ever replace you.


(5) Thinking teaching is ever 'one size fits all.'   I suspect there are some skills, lessons, and other forms of knowledge that can be mastered very successfully online.  In fact, one of my projects ahead is to take a range of online courses so I can see for myself how well I learn (I can't really speak for anyone else) on line.  I would like to take some Kahn Academy courses, for example.  I haven't figured out what but I love astronomy so I think that is where I might begin.  I want to take a drawing course online too (although I have a friend who is a fabulous artist, with a sensitive line whose expressiveness can make you weep, and I am talking with her about maybe augmenting my online drawing class with her own sage advice).   I helped tutor a student in expository writing last term and felt that some basics were possible but I very disappointed in the low and even mechanical forms of learning in that course.   On the other hand, if Sebastian Thrun teaches his AI course again at Stanford, I'd love to take it.   And I'd love to see if I could get back what once was said to be "perfect pitch" by an online music listening course. And I'd love, just for fun, to actually learn Scratch, the multimedia programming language that is a great building block for kids just beginning to learn how to code.   I know, I know, that is a pretty irrational syllabus.  But if I manage to carry through on even one of these, I promise to report back.


(6) The key difference between my self-prescribed online learning syllabus and the for-profit schools in this New York Times article:  choice.   Even if it turns out I learn a lot from my online courses, the chief reason will be I want to learn, I have the will to learn, but I don't really have any need to learn.  I learn this way because my life is too over-scheduled to learn it in a conventional classroom.  This is all a luxury for me, a convenience.  That is the opposite of the form of teaching the for-profit in this New York Times article delivers to kids who don't really have a choice, who don't have other means, who don't have a baseline of learning, experience, and success in place (i.e. it doesn't matter if I fail Drawing 101), and who have a desperate need.  Apples and oranges.


And that brings me to (7) My biggest pet peeve of all is those who generalize about "online learning" versus "face to face learning" as if who, what, where, why, and how don't make all the difference.    So much punditry denounces online learning as if it were homogenous.   So much chicanery comes from extolling  online learning in the same way, as if it is the be-all and the end-all, the solution to failing schools .  


Learning is always personal, intimate, specific.   Our discussions of the pros and cons of different kinds of learning have to be equally so.   To settle for any less--in one direction or the other--is to shortchange one of the most important conversations we can be having right now.  




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit [NYSI cover]



Well said.

I did take three online graduate courses between 2000 and 2005. They were Qualitative Research I & II and Theories of Adult Education. What I learned from these courses (as well as the experience of being a student again years) was eye-opening and extremely useful in broadening my thinking about learning and education in general.

I have several blog posts related to this in my head, and maybe I'll get to them eventually. 

I lack your uncanny ability to carve out writing time. And perfect pitch too? Wow. What a gift.

Liz D.

P.S. #hastac_f11 was fantastic


Thanks, Liz. Those classes sound great.    So great to see you at HASTAC2011 and spend time together.   I tend to learn better from websites and url's and books and articles than from classes . . . but for some actual skill sets (moonwalking, and I hope line drawing), I need the steps really laid out for me.   It's an exciting time, and it's no surprise that people mash up all kinds of things that don't go together . . . but it just isn't helpful to do that universalizing mash up thing.   I suspect it is from fear:  THEY ARE AFTER MY JOB!!!   People react that way even when it is actually not a job.  I can't imagine carving out time to take an actual course in Moonwalking, as much as I would love to be keeping up my old dancing and dance class life . . .     Anyway, I do hope you will blog sometime. And thanks for the kind words about mine.


Thanks, Cathy, for taking real stands on these issues. I really think we are lucky to have people like you leading the thinking about education in the US at such an important and pivotal time.

A big factor in the emergence of these for-profit "virtual schools" is the gutting of public school systems in several states around the US (Michigan is a prime example). 

The goal appears to be to weaken public infrastructure by defunding it (defunding Universities, libraries, and school systems, public parks, museums, archives, community centers and community services). Associated with this defunding activity is an effort to strip away rights and effectiveness of teacher unions and associations/organizations. The hope is that all of these services can be replaced with privatized services, often with little or no oversight from government or local people. Yet, still often subsidized by tax dollars, in addition to costing parents directly out of pocket. In a climate where corporations want to move more people in communities towards servitude and serfdom, what will the "education" produced by private corporations end up looling like? If anyone thought that the public school system was mostly just a factory for turning out compliant employees who lack critical thinking, wait until you see what profit-driven corporations directly controlling educational development end up doing!

It's become evident in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pensylvania, Indiana, and other states that as financial situations worsen, corporate/political alliances are moving quickly to take advantage of the situation, and as displayed in only one year   in Michigan, they can make quick work of dismantling not just education, but whole community infrastructures. I am of the opinion that we can't just assume that it is safe to continue building mostly and solely through the existing public/government interface, because it is now so vulnerable to hijacking by what probably will ultimately amount to pirates that want to run people out of communities, and get their hands on valuable resources (mineral rights, land, water, etc). I think it's time to start new institutions. New infrastructures that are not so vulnerable to destruction. I am talking (in part) about education cooperatives. Worker/parent -owned cooperatives, in the case of K-12 education, and worker-student owned for adults. These cooperatives can offer rich classroom learning experiences as you'd expect. However, they can also offer support and embedded ongoing education for people engaged in doing things. Some of us out here in the midwest are starting with teaching people how to be sustainable organic farmers and processors of food in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This will include some classroom teaching by existing institutions. But, more importantly, it will also have a focus of "on the ground" support and ongoing education (both in person and virtual).  We're not waiting for Univerisities, Foundations, technical schools or anyone else to approve and lead what we are doing (but we are also keeping the door wide open for any and all of those education-oriented institutions when they are ready collaborate and embrace this new type of education).  In the process of figuring out that there is a real economic growth opportunity in fresh, local, sustainable and healthy foods, we've also identified that we can re-invest the profits right back into communities, in part with education systems and support systems for people creating new economies.  In 2012, we're doing this in Vermont, Wisconsin, Ohio,and Pennsylvania. It also turns out that we can drive technology development and technology education around food production from farm to "plate" in this region, too. So, we've started teaming up with fab labs and are creating prototypes around food technologies. It's an exciting time, and we'll be re-launching and blogging about all of this and more there in the coming months. We're happy to keep collaborating here on HASTAC too. Plus, keep an eye out for an all new Social Media Classroom release coming from myself and Howard Rheingold in the next few weeks (rebuilt in Ruby on Rails this time), which will play a major role in the education efforts I mention above...


Clearly part of the big neoliberal playbook of the 1980s-1990s , that included radical tax cuts and liberalization of off-shoring laws for the ultra-rich (what Krugman calls the .01% that is the real issue here) was a strategy for privatizing those branches of goverment off which money could be made.   The wicked campaign against national health insurance is among them and so is privitization of prisons (including growth of the one strong union in America, the prison-workers union, that also lobbies for mandatory sentencing laws) and, since prisons have turned out to be less profitable than expected, now privitization of schools.  Spectacular failures, including some figure-headed by well meaning people who thought the issue was alternative excellence, not profiteering, has not stemmed the tide.  I'm thinking of writing a series of very practical, downloadable and perhaps free if I can convince a publisher e-books focusing on specific topics and this blog (a version of which was in the Washington Post) will be one.  The reason I keep hitting the road is because I trhink this stuff is dire and we need far better policies and far more caution.   The "data" on failing schools is all there----and what we know is that we can disaggregate the data and we're talking about failing economies, not schools.   Thanks for your careful resplons! 


That's exciting about the new Social Media Classroom release!  I'd like to use it in my classes next year, including one I may be teaching with Dan Ariely on storytelling and experiment.   (Talk about a blockbuster class!!)