02/04/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013

The Real Trouble With Online Higher Ed

The past few weeks have seen twists and turns in the ongoing debate about the quality and worth of online learning, and its role in the future of higher ed. On Jan. 17, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the value of higher education, predicting financial problems for universities and colleges. A few days earlier, schools in California announced that students can take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for university credit. Last weekend, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lauded MOOCsas the democratizing revolution we've been waiting for. The three major companies providing free online learning -- Coursera, Udacity and edX -- were jubilantly present at Davos. Online university enrollments are on the rise, according to a new industry report, even as overall college enrollments declined.

What are we to make of it all -- is the revolution here? Pundits on the left proclaim the meteoric rise of online learning and declining enrollments the harbingers of a "bust" in higher education. Pundits on the right laud the bust and encourage students to head straight into entrepreneurship. But education pundits of all stripes are attempting to solve the wrong problem. The problem isn't too many Bachelor's diplomas or too many online courses. The problem is the current system's failure to develop essential competences in a cost-effective way.

Students who were underprepared in high school, or who are not independent academic learners, need this problem solved the most. Colleges and universities need to help these students, and others, learn quantitative reasoning so they can make good decisions about mortgages or credit cards. They need to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to get better jobs. Online learning can help solve this problem, but not by following the common models.

Here's why the common models will fail.

Online courses in traditional universities lack scale. Courses are designed and taught by professors who are artists who build and teach courses with a personal vision of what is important. Each one is individualized, and they change from teacher to teacher. The cost is driven by the inefficiency. Autonomous, highly valued faculty in large universities focus on their research, supplemented by either adjunct faculty or graduate students who teach the courses that "must be taught" -- often with little training. When as a graduate student I first taught Consumer Psychology, I wrote my lectures staying one week ahead of the students. When you do this in an online course, the result is chaos and confusion. When the professor is the star chef, the Julia Child who may drop the chicken on the floor or create a fabulous concoction, each meal will be different. The result is education that is expensive, inefficient, and of wildly varying quality.

Online for-profit courses, on the other hand, often can't develop complex skills. The courses and feedback are standardized; when I taught for an online for-profit, the recommended practice was to copy-paste one of several stock paragraphs over and over. It is efficient, and resources can be put into classes that are clear, consistent and supported by multi-media. But the drive for timeliness and cost-effectiveness, combined with the temporary workforce, means that some students don't get the individualized feedback needed to develop their skills. In this educational McDonalds, the service is fast but the intellectual nutrition may not be high.

What is needed is a combination of both approaches -- a Wolfgang Puck of local specialties, custom-prepared with a kitchen designed to support both consistency and excellence. There is a long way to go, but some schools are leading the way.

Colleges from California to Florida are experimenting with blended learning, where students take a pre-designed online together, but also work with a professor in a face-to-face classroom. Some colleges in Massachusetts and California are blending local teachers with pre-designed MOOCs offered by edX, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT. This approach allows students to reap the benefits of online learning without stumbling over the major weaknesses of MOOCs: high drop-out rates, and lack of support and developmental feedback.

Although pundits right and left have claimed MOOCs as the future of higher education, MOOCs can't support students who are not self-motivated and self-directed, who get discouraged or who need supportive feedback. The vast majority of students who enroll to not finish, in part because MOOCs don't offer the kind of feedback that teaches students to think critically or write clearly. But a blended approach can meet the growing need to provide college skills at a reasonable price, and with the flexibility of doing much of the work on their own time.

Another innovator is my own university, DePaul. In the online program at the School for New Learning, faculty work together with instructional designers to build online courses. Instead of watching hours of videos, students apply concepts -- they may prepare an argument for a judge or design a training program. Professors are paid to develop courses, which become like textbooks -- resources that can be re-used. Professors' rights are protected by contract; the work is theirs, but others can teach it for a period of time. The course author gets additional compensation if more students learn from the class. Rich online discussions allow students to get to know one another, share ideas and develop deeper learning about real-world issues such as, "Should you take out a fixed rate mortgage or a variable one?" or "What is this piece of art worth?" Instructors guide, support and give feedback to students so they can develop higher order skills and complete the courses.

To be sure, research shows that many university professors mistrust online learning. Some fear that the quality of the educational experience is low. And this can be the case; if designed poorly, online courses can be boring, passive experiences with low-level learning. But carefully designed courses help students actively work out problems, and give them skills to apply throughout their lives.

Millions of Americans need efficient higher education that develops complex skills and supports their success, but we can't get there by either MOOCs or pricey universities alone, whether for-profit or non-profit. But by melding the best of both worlds, universities can meet the needs of so many students who can't afford huge tuition, but need supportive guidance to develop the skills to succeed in the information age.