Starting in the 1990s—which is a relatively long time ago for me and many Millenials (I went to elementary school in the ‘90s!)—the budding pathway of distance education and later online education for undergraduate and graduate degrees became one that students began to take at many institutions. In 1995, more than one-third of US institutions offered some sort of distance education, via audio and video courses, correspondence study, or nascent online operations. A quarter century later, the U.S. Department of Education tells us that 16 percent of the total United States postsecondary student population, or approximately 3.5 million students, take fully online/distance coursework. Once at the periphery of teaching and learning, pre-pandemic numbers show more than 30 percent of all students took at least one course through distance education, with a vast majority of those students being at public institutions. So why is it that Congress and the general public do not view these programs and students on an equal level to their on-campus equivalents?
Online students are often adults, working parents, veterans, those with disabilities, and others who are often taking these courses to meet their varied needs or busy lives. They do so for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they require flexibility that traditional on-campus courses can only sometimes accommodate. Some may even be doing it to get a better, and more engaged, learning experience. A Department of Education meta-analysis conducted in 2010 of multiple studies on the efficacy and outcomes of online education overall found that “classes with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction.”
And yet employers, legislators, and many in higher education show skepticism, if not outright disdain, when the topic of online education is raised, particularly if they have never engaged in online learning. However once online learners graduate, many of these students join the workforce, with their resumes stating nothing about the modality of the courses taken to achieve their degree, but simply their alma mater and the degree received. Suddenly, the modality of their learning is not questioned or even verified by employers, because a degree from a university is one of the greatest forms of currency and legitimacy lended to one’s knowledge and education. And, as the studies have shown, this disregard of the modality is warranted, as the outcomes are similar for students who take courses at a distance or face-to-face in a lecture hall.
But still, negative perceptions have found their way all the way up to Congress and impact education legislation—clouding discussions, and leaving those students and impressions of their education at a disadvantage in policymakers’ perceptions, too. In the recent CARES Act, the calculus for how institutions would receive relief dollars, and emergency grants for students, was created specifically to leave the count of distance education students out. As a result, many schools were told to not provide online students with emergency dollars. In subsequent offerings of legislation, many have used this calculus, or looked to this calculus as the best way to further distribute additional rounds of funds. In these federal policies, calculations of online student aid disbursement follow the trend of setting aside online students as an unequal part of the full student population.
These students and their education and lives were also disrupted by COVID-19. Many online students utilize materials and on-campus resources, which include reserving textbooks and materials at libraries, essential technologies to access coursework (like computers and internet access), as well as other student services. Because many are adult students, and may have had significant financial losses or are now playing the role of teacher to their children who are at home, their needs may be greater than those first-time on-campus students.
If we want to support all students, let’s count the millions of students involved in online education, and provide them with the acknowledgement and respect they deserve. It’s past time to legitimize online education as part of the mainstream, because it already is.