Unevenly distributed future: America's online education system

In a characteristically insightful essay, Clay Shirky discusses the largely invisible rise of online education and dissects the causes of that invisibility: namely that the American higher education system is an iron-clad requirement for economic success, and it is remarkably bad at serving people who are already poor.

It's the kind of one-two punch that makes the causes (and remedies) for poverty systemic, rather than individual.

America leads the world in college enrollment but also has one of the lowest rates of graduation in the world. The wage premium that American workers receive for graduating from college has vanished, but the punishment for not attending college has only increased. Finally, there's the skyrocketing tuition and associated fees, which are part of a cycle of financialized debt that funds ever-higher salaries for administrators who have presided over the dismantling of a livable wage for college professors.

In the early days of online education, boosters promised that the online system would one day outcompete the four-year, high-priced residential college experience. Instead, it's evolved into a parallel system through which adults, and poor children, and poor adults, can participate in education. Because the post-secondary system tends to get judged by people who were well-served by the old four-year/high-priced system, the current online reality gets short shrift in public debate.

But online education is a critical factor in American education and labor markets, and it's not especially well-run when it comes to the needs of the pupils it serves. As Shirky points out, there's a lot of ways that simple improvements in the delivery of online education can markedly improve the outcomes for students without costing anything:

When a group of colleges offering online classes in Connecticut decided to direct questions about financial aid to their shared IT call center, thousands of students called, but almost all their questions were some version of How do I apply?, What's my status? or Why did I get this amount? Staff were trained to answer simple questions immediately and escalate only the few complicated ones; workload went down, costs went down, and student satisfaction went way up. The change didn't take a lot of money. It did take a willingness to see the institution from the student's point of view.

When Franklin University launched an online tool to let students see which of their previous courses would transfer, their enrollments grew 13%, a huge number in one of the core processes for a school. The portability of credit is a central issue for non-traditional students, yet there are still schools where you can only request a transcript via fax, with the usual effect on timeliness. ("Official transcript requests are processed within 10 business days of receipt.")

When students taking the ACT college readiness exam were allowed to send four free copies of their results to colleges instead of three, poorer students used the extra test to apply to schools where admittance wasn't a sure thing, and often got in to these 'stretch' schools. The cost of forwarding an additional ACT test is six dollars. Those kids should have been thinking "The lifetime value of going to a better school is way higher than $6." Instead they were thinking "I only get three free tests, so I better not waste them on schools I might not get into."

The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed. [Clay Shirky/Medium]

(via O'Reilly Radar)