Does Online Ed Lack Integrity? Seriously?

I don’t want to make Eduflack an ed-policy-check blog about the Hillary Clinton campaign. After critiquing the Hillary effort earlier this week, I pledged to myself I was done with presidential campaign edu-politics for a while.

Then Carl Straumsheim, a part of the terrific reporting team over at Inside Higher Education, has to go and discover and then write up what he did today about Hillary’s edu-speech this week and its remarks about online education.

As Straumsheim reported:

In a version of the plan distributed to the media this past weekend, the campaign said, “We must restore integrity to online learning and will not tolerate programs that fall short,” as though online education has recently lost its way. The campaign reworded the sentence before Monday’s announcement, however. The published version reads, “We must bring integrity to online learning” — as though it never had any in the first place.

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign didn’t respond to IHE’s request for comment to the report. So we are all left guessing by what they intended and why what was written was actually written (and spoken).

I want to give the Clinton campaign the benefit of the doubt. I really do. I want to believe this was just a clumsy attempt to talk about the problems facing for-profit higher education today. It was a way to voice concerns about gainful employment and the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and the hope that a college degree has meaning, regardless of who’s name is on the top of the sheepskin.

But by using the words that she did, and editing them the way that she did, Hillary simply adds fuel to a fire that is already confusing far too many. She is using online education as a synonym for for-profit education. She is confusing instructional delivery method with the administrative mission and responsibility. And she is wrong in doing so.

There are a great number of traditional, not-for-profit colleges and universities that use online education. IHE mentions Hillary’s own alma mater, Wellesley College. We could add Bill’s undergraduate school, Georgetown University, to the list of colleges playing in online ed. And institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and even my own University of Virginia make the list.

Surely we aren’t suggesting that these colleges and the hundreds like them that are using online delivery to reach today’s students lack integrity, are we? Does she really mean that every institution that currently offers blended learning or online platforms or even MOOCs lacks integrity? That a program “falls short” simply because it isn’t delivered through a traditional classroom setting, with a single professor talking before a lecture hall of hundreds of desks (many of which may have students sitting in them)?

If she meant to criticize for-profit higher education providers like Corinthian (and many of them do deserve criticism) then just come right out and say it. But remember that a provider like University of Phoenix provides far more “education” through its traditional, bricks-and-mortar storefronts that Hillary seems to embrace than it does through its online offerings. And don’t forget that, until earlier this year, Bill Clinton just wrapped up five years as the “honorary chancellor” of the Laureate International Universities for-profit and online chain (and earned millions of dollars for the honor, according to the NYT.)

Since 2007 or 2008, Eduflack has waxed semi-eloquently on this blog about the value and benefits of online learning. Much of it has been focused on K-12 blended learning efforts, but some of it has also been directed toward higher education. Today’s learners are not like those of a previous generation. Online learning allows all of us to ensure that tech-savvy students don’t need to unplug or de-skill when they enter a classroom. It ensures that a student is not denied an academic path of choice because of geographic limitations. It helps students pursue postsecondary education on their terms, building programs that work with the growing demands of families, work, and life.

Done right, online education empowers the learner. It puts the decision making in the hands of the student, and not just the provider. And it can require an education provider to improve instruction, delivery, content, and overall quality as a result.

Online education has enormous power when it comes to opening doors to those previously denied and leveling the learning playing fields.

Do some providers abuse that power and offer an inferior product? Absolutely. But the same can be said of bricks-and-mortar institutions that will enroll any warm body willing to take out loans to pay rising tuition costs. Our focus should be on the quality of instruction-however it is delivered-and not exclusively on the model being used to deliver it.

Mrs. Clinton, I hope you intend to continue to push on the discussion of integrity and institutional quality in higher education. But please don’t use such a broad brush in the process. Let’s look at grad rates and employment statistics. Let’s look at institutional costs and student loan debt. Let’s even discuss the merits, or lack there of, of for-profit higher education.

But let’s not suggest online education lacks integrity. Education, whether online or delivered in any other method, depends of the quality, values, and character of the person delivering it. Whether they do it in a classroom, online, from the town square, or at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, integrity is a measure of the quality of the product, not the means for delivering it.

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