New York Times — Say It Isn’t So!

So the “paper of record” weighed in on online learning in its February 18th editorial entitled “The Trouble with Online College.” Overall, the editorial paints with a wide brush and distorts the reality of online teaching and learning. Below is a point-for-point analysis of the editorial (some points are legitimate) followed by ideas I would have put forth in my editorial on the subject.

Online Through the Eyes of The Times

After a close reading of the editorial, the following are the major points:

  • Attrition rates in online courses are significantly higher than in traditional courses.
  • Students with poor skills, needing remedial help, would be better off in face-to-face classes.
  • Online courses typically have little interaction with students.
  • Students are wasting “hard-earned” tuition monies by taking online courses.
  • Students should demonstrate success in traditional classes prior to taking online courses.
  • Blended courses may be more appropriate for struggling students, but they are rare and costly.

There is some merit to what The Times puts forth, and a lot of misguided nonsense. First, in well-planned and well-run online programs, the attrition rates are not significantly different than in traditional classes. “Struggling students” who need remedial help would have been screened out prior to taking any classes.  It is a “best practice” for online programs to be forthright about what online learning entails and to realistically assess students’ abilities during the application process.

Also, not all online programs are for-profit, where students are aggressively recruited to spend their (often) government-funded tuition dollars with little hope of obtaining a degree. Many, like the CUNY Online programs, require mature adults to have 30 or more credits of previous college experience. Rather than a recipe for exploitation, this is the fulfillment of a student’s lifelong desire to earn a legitimate credential at a respected institution. In fact, some online programs have policies where only students with a requisite  GPA can enroll in online courses, and only after their first year of college is complete. Policies such as these would prevent much of the abuse seen in for-profit online programs which The Times attributes to the entire field.

Blended or hybrid courses are a viable option for many students at many institutions. Within CUNY, there is a major push from Chancellor Goldstein to ensure that all colleges within the university offer a range of hybrid courses. Additional funding was provided to most CUNY campuses and college presidents need to report hybrid/online benchmarks at their respective campuses. The idea that blended courses are “rare or costly” in higher education is completely off the mark.

Interaction in hybrid/online courses may be as robust, if not more so, than in traditional courses. In my fully online course, I  have:

  • webinars twice a month where students can see, hear and interact with me,
  • students use collaborative tools for group projects,
  • students create a blog about both course content and their reflection of learning, and
  • used various other Web 2.0 and social networking tools. So students experience active learning, engagement with course content, the professor and fellow students and, in all likelihood, have a higher degree of interactivity than in a traditional course. It is up to program administrators to set the bar higher to ensure the quality of online courses. Interactivity is but one aspect of course quality. Rest assured, lack of interactivity can just as easily exist in a traditional setting as in an online one.

What The Times Didn’t Say (but I have in my various blog posts):

1. The field of online learning has been one of the most dynamic developments in higher education in the past century. Its growth has been meteoric, and its impact on higher education policies and programs, significant.  (see this post)

2. Online learning is now an established fact in higher education, and a strategic component at most institutions. (see blog post)

3. Online learning is part and parcel of a significant shift in how teaching and learning are conducted.  Essentially, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in teaching practice from an instructor-centered model to a learner-centered one. (see blog post)

4. Online learning has its issues and abuses, as does traditional learning. With any change in paradigm, those benefitting by the existing paradigm will vociferously resist change, usually by parroting specious arguments. The Times is complicit in this process by such editorials. It can take a generation of innovators to make real inroads in any endeavor as significant as college teaching. Despite the nay-sayers, the arguments for online learning are compelling and will not be reversed. (see blog post)

5. The existing model of pedagogy is bankrupt and has completely outlived its usefulness. It’s one thing to criticize online learning as deficient, it is quite another to assume that traditional pedagogy, as practiced for several generations, is a paradigm of good teaching. As John Tagg writes in his book “The Learning Paradigm College,” the current instructional paradigm needs a complete overhaul in its approaches, processes, policies, measures of success, and roles of teacher and student. It is this current system that has spawned a legion of educational reformers who clearly see that “the emperor has no clothes.” (see blog post)

Much more can be written, but The Times editorial is nothing but an embarrassment for those of us in the field.  Hasn’t The Times tried to change its modus operandi due to the recent digital avalanche in publishing? In a similar manner, traditional institutions will be forced to change their operations in light of the avalanche of digital learning and the new learning paradigm.


Tagg, John, (2003). The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA.

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