Problems In California And Ohio Highlight DNA Flaws In Online Learning

As nearly everyone knows by now, online education has problems. Not snags or hiccups, though it has those too.

Online education, remote instruction, digital distance learning – whatever you want to name it – has flaws in its genetics that have opened the door to a host of sizeable and significant issues.  In the last few weeks, we’ve seen glaring, shocking evidence of two.  

One is that online education, by its essence, is not an in-person, face-to-face activity. And that flaw can’t be helped. Being online, remote, virtual is what makes it what it is. Being online requires space – geographic and relational – between people. Online education, in other words, does not close gaps between instructors and students, it is that gap.   

A second flaw in online learning is the temptation to scale.  At the very dawn of online learning, innovators and entrepreneurs hawked its ability to scale – the power of remote technology to teach 300 or 3,000 students online instead of 30 in a classroom. Online education would educate the globe and for pennies on the dollar, they said – allowing, in the bargain, for schools to squeeze profit from large online programs. The problem is that scale, efficiency and quest for profit inevitably, invariably, reduce quality.

Starting with the pressure of “scale” and “ROI,” many may have overlooked the news in November that accreditors placed Eastern Gateway Community College – a public school in Ohio – on probation over lack of quality in its online programs and lack of standards in online admissions.  Limited news coverage of the suspension called it a “stinging rebuke.”

Without going too deep, Eastern Gateway struck a deal with a for-profit company known as an OPM, an online program manager – one of those companies that says it is, “Revolutionizing The Future Of Online Learning” but takes half of the student tuition in the deal. As a result, the school saw its enrollment balloon from 3,000 students in 2015 to more than 46,000, according to press reports. Those reports also note that, “all but 3,491 of the 46,606 students enrolled at the college take classes exclusively online.” And so, with a heavily marketed online program advertising “free” college, enrollments and margins skyrocketed.


Many in education would call that a great success. But, the school’s accreditor said, quality nosedived. The oversight body specifically noted that, “A discrepancy exists between enrollment requirements for online versus on-campus student populations” and that the online programs relied heavily – too heavily – on contract, adjunct teachers.

Contract, adjunct teachers, in education terms, is code for inexpensive. Inexpensive, of course, means scale and profit – or in the case of a public school, budget surplus. A spokesperson for Eastern Gateway even told one paper that the reason the school could sustain such rapid growth was the “scalability” of adjunct instructors.  

Again, this ability to scale and squeeze every penny from every online student is a feature of online education, not a bug. The lower quality, higher profit model is the very design benefit that we’ve seen from for-profit schools for a decade and more recently from such schools as Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State and Purdue and others. If you can keep your costs down by relying on cheap adjuncts and large classes, for example, there’s profit in going “global,” – today’s marketing term for online. And so long as the DNA of online learning comes with the lure of scale and profit, pressure will exist to push up enrollments by pushing down investment and quality.

The DNA flaw in online learning’s space gap also surfaced recently in what should have been a shocking story out of California – that automated computer bots were enrolling in online community college programs in an effort to scam financial aid payments. Fake students being signed up for online classes to collect real dollars, in other words.

And this isn’t some shabby operation happening in California. Reporting says that 60,000 suspected fake students applied for financial aid in the state and as much as 20% of the traffic at online admissions portals for California schools may have been from bots trying to enroll. In follow up reporting, one professor who’s been tracking the fake student situation said she thinks the bots “could be multiplying.”  

Further, the fake student bots aren’t just registering for classes and applying for aid. They are logging in to the teaching and learning platforms – LMS as their known – and completing assignments so they appear to be real students. The work is often gibberish or plagiarized, of course. But making that determination, telling real work from computer garbage, defies a strictly automated response that could detect and boot the bots.  

The LA Times reported that a Vice President of Academic Affairs at one of the impacted California colleges recently sent an email to professors in online courses suggesting that they “require interactive engagement from students during the first week of classes to determine if they’re real or fake.”

When professors need to be told to interactively engage with students, you have online education. When they need to be told to do that in order to spot fake student scams, you have the type of problem that can only exist in an online program, in the gap between students and teachers. Real teachers can probably spot a real student when they turn up for class. When they never have to, it’s a problem.

Like the problem of scale, the distance in online education is not a fluke or user error. Both the temptations of scale and the relationship gaps are built in, designed in, even marketed as features of online learning.

The Tycoon Herald