Several studies have come out debating online learning, recently. One major study that gained a lot of (bad) traction is a Stanford study on the ROI of online learning. As it turns out, the study itself seems to be flawed in many ways. When Inside HigherEd promoted it, many scholars across the Web tore it to shreds, bit by bit, through interviews, comments, and references. I, myself, had a grand chuckle at the idea that one of the online courses at my institution could cost more than an on-campus course. There is no way that would ever be possible with how much we spend per student to have an operating physical campus. My looming question has to do with this one commenter’s point, that I echo: “Seems researchers are spending entire careers trying to debunk online education when you are delivering exactly the same material just in a different modality. Time to do some real research on a topic in which your bias does not scream so loud.” Yes, it is still a thing to try to ‘debunk online learning’, like it’s brand new or can just go away.

Stanford is a big enough name to not offer online programs. Eager students from all over the world claw at applying to the Ivies. Small institutions, on the other hand, are not so lucky. These institutions have introduced online learning, not just as a way to ‘meet students where they are’ and ‘bring the mission to students around the world’, but as another revenue stream so they can keep things on campus going strong. This is a point that many people overlook: online education helps to pay for on-campus luxuries. My institution just celebrated 10 years of offering online programs last year and we have 12 online programs. That is good, steady revenue for a small, struggling institution. Do researchers think small institutions can just pull 20% of their revenue out from under the college because of the results of some study?

OK, if this hasn’t convinced you, maybe you care more about that temporary ban on travel from seven countries to the U.S. Yes, colleges are taking deep financial hits when these full-paying students don’t enroll, but also the education of many students has already been impacted unfairly by this ban. Online learning presents an amazing opportunity for U.S. colleges to still educate students around the world. 

Why are people still debating online learning like it’s a thing colleges and students can live without? Is it to find ‘new knowledge’? Is it a hot topic to research? Or is it because they just really, really hate the idea of it? Every year, people waste their time and taxpayer dollars on studying whether or not online learning ‘is as effective as on-ground learning’. Several times a month, I still have this reoccurring conversation with individuals who are plenty experienced in higher education. I approach it kindly because I’m never sure if people really are just new to the idea or are trying to launch into a debate. Bernard Bull wrote this fantastic article that I continue to refer back to about ‘adding depth’ to our conversation of online and face-to-face a few years ago. Every point is spot-on and the first sentence of the article is my life. The regular questions and conversations about the validity of online learning are so thin. An article like this serves as a good reference when having this conversation. I only wish the researchers at Stanford had it on hand during their study.  If we are going to insist on researching online learning, let’s at least do it with depth.