Published on 2015/10/16
The EvoLLLution | The First Goal Of Online Is Access, Not Education
Higher education serves an immensely diverse audience with a range of needs and priorities, which is not captured by studies that seek to directly compare traditional and online delivery modes.

The goal of education processes—the primary goal—is to educate students. Online programs, however, were developed to provide access and flexibility to education, not to provide education itself. In many ways, education is a secondary goal in online delivery.

This isn’t to demean the online mode itself, but to consider the motivation for creating it in the first place. Education existed long before it was possible to get that education online. When we do research to compare modes, went tend to miss the abstract and consumer drivers that lead to the consumption and development of those modes. Those drivers, though, impact the goals of the students who are choosing between traditional and online programming.

Thinking through comparing modes of delivery, we find that traditional education began with education as the goal. Places, building and methodologies were all created to enhance the first goal of education delivery. Online learning has a different goal: The first goal for online education is access, followed by convenience and flexibility. The conceptual challenge with online involves understanding that it’s not an education-first method; it is a convenience- and effectiveness-first focus.

Therefore, one online program may be qualitatively better than another because of a certain set of characteristics and services offered to facilitate access to the education (the product). Similarly, one traditional program may exceed another when evaluating the education itself (product) first and evaluating services second.

Student needs drive their reported preferences, which in turn dictates their responses to any set of questions that researchers trying to define program quality and outcomes might ask. Online students, since their needs and preferences are for an alternative mode, would be more likely to respond affirmatively to research questions about online education specifically. Similarly, students predisposed to a seat would be more likely to respond negatively to surveys of online delivery satisfaction. Both are valid, but should not be counted in the same sample. Of course, Hawthorne Effect and Halo Error are both valid considerations in this simplistic thought on research. This same assumption, though, has to be considered when conducting research that compares modes.

This does not have to be a harsh criticism; rather, it allows us to understand the reason the first part of this series postulated that online education should not be compared qualitatively with traditional education. Through this approach, courses that have the same learning objectives—regardless of modality—would be compared against one another. Learning is still the focus, but the modality of delivery carries with it an inherent goal or goals. For example, since an online version of a traditional course has the same outcomes, we consider the two courses to be equal. However, online, by design, has a goal of providing a convenient way to get to the learning outcomes. As such, the goal of the two courses—though they offer similar content—is different, and comparing the two qualitatively is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Attacking online programs suggests that access, convenience or flexibility have no place in education delivery, an outmoded and disappointing point of view. If educational attainment truly improves society (a simplistic assumption), then the more convenient the delivery of education, the better society becomes. If education is a restricted benefit aimed at improving individual quality of life, then convenience decreases the quality of education. To create a study comparing online and traditional, you first need to understand the philosophical approach the culture of the respective institution holds: is education to improve society, or quality of life for the individual?

The academy cherishes unique delivery, and faculty hold tight to academic freedom. Is it not antithetical, then, to compare entities that are not comparable by culture, belief and design? Studies comparing online and face-to-face offerings tend to take two institutions with two distinct cultures and then produce evaluations that square them against one another as equals. Even with measures to account for inequities, an institution whose culture values face-to-face education will communicate that value to their students.

By contrast, an institution that values online education will communicate that value to their students through service, delivery and other measurements not directly related to the quality of education. The larger population will influence the outcome of any study. In fact, the cultural aspect suggests the only valid studies compare online to online and traditional to traditional.

Of course, the outcry against any rankings shows the bias in the online/traditional comparison studies. It bears asking, why do institutions accept comparative studies for online and traditional education, but then create constant verbiage on the many reasons educational institutions cannot be ranked?

The reason is simple: it is a market-based approach aimed at creating a product preference. The very institutions that cannot accept the commoditization of education are willing to create educational product markets through highlighting and manufacturing studies that amount to little more than advertisement.

When we can all accept that education is a mature/maturing market, then we will be able to accept different modalities as cultural artifacts of education delivery created by the faculty of a particular institution. There will be no studies needed to determine what is better because we will all realize that it is a preference. Actually, more than preference, it has become a product.

If we cancelled all online classes today, those online students would not fill a building. Different students demand different modes to fit different needs.

This is the third installment of a three-part series on comparisons between online and traditional education. The other two installments are:

Comparisons of Online Versus Traditional Education Miss The Point

The Market Is Sending A Message About Modalities: Are We Listening?

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Readers Comments

Fred Walker 2015/10/16 at 10:12 am

What we need to be studying is the ability of individual programs or products to fulfill their goals and meet the needs of the students they’re aiming to serve. There’s no need for these market-based ad studies. As individual institutions, we need studies tailored to our products so we can assess how well we’re going at our jobs.

Carrie Butler 2015/10/16 at 2:35 pm

It’s really important that we value the impetus behind different modes of education because that reveals the needs of the people who are making use of them. Without knowing why someone would choose one modality over another, we have no way of knowing if we’re creating a delivery mode that fits the needs of the real people we’re trying to educate. If the modality doesn’t work, the quality of the education doesn’t matter.

Rebecca 2015/10/19 at 6:53 pm

I don’t buy it – students do not enroll in online education for the online; they enroll for the education. It is the ultimate goal of their attendance. Were all online courses to go away tomorrow, they would still WANT the education (well, the credential, but the same goes for ground students) but would no longer be able to pursue it. If the education received online is in some way inferior, students (as the buyers) have a right to know that and we as educators need to either plan accordingly or improve the quality. We are not excused from that just because the new modality was developed as a way to provide access to students who wanted it but didn’t have it; that’s just us driving up revenue.

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