04/04/2013 10:17 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

The New York Times Lectures California About Online Courses -- and It's Wrong

One can perhaps understand why the New York Times has its nose out of joint about online anything, given the destructive impact of Google and its progeny on the traditional newspaper business. At least that is an online subject which the Times can rightly claim some degree of actual knowledge.

The March 30, 2013 editorial decrying the proposal in the California State Legislature to require expansion of online offerings in the California State University system, however, exposes the Times' outright ignorance of the reality and potential of Web-based learning to break the "graduation gridlock" that afflicts not only California's but the rest of America's higher education establishment.

The college dropout rate in the United States is 45 percent -- the same as our worst inner-city high schools! It takes an average of six years for American students to finish college today, for three main reasons: budget cutbacks cancelling course offerings required for graduation, tuition increases that rival even the rising cost of health care, and students bring forced to attend only part-time so they can work while they study and thus avoid the crushing burden of student loans on their future livelihood. This disgraceful performance consigns America to a "playing from behind" economic future when it comes to having the numbers of college graduates it needs to fill the jobs of the future. Never mind today's high unemployment rate: college-skilled jobs are already going begging in science and engineering -- and just wait until the full brunt of baby-boomer retirement hits later this decade!

All three of these impediments to restoring America's world leadership in college degree completion can be alleviated by adding online course delivery to the course profiles of public (and private) universities. Once past the initial investment, online courses now price in the private education market at levels equivalent to in-person courses, which means such courses can be a reliable revenue source for cash-strapped university budgets. Moreover, by expanding enrollment to those "shut-out" of in-person courses by space constraints not applicable on the Web, tuition increases can be moderated or even held flat. By enabling students to keep up their study from home at all hours, online courses can also help those who must work while they go to school to both make ends meet and persist to graduation.

The legislators of California have figured all this out, and have had the courage to take on faculty resistance to online courses (professors will have to learn new methodologies and be more available with online "office hours" to answer student questions ). But the Times turns a blind eye to these benefits and instead swallows whole the propaganda of traditionalists that, as the editorial writer grandly concludes, "Online courses as generally configured are not broadly useful."

It is truly odd to see the Times, which has rightly decried "junk science" denial of global warming, accept without evidence that online courses are "junk college" (maybe it's professional jealousy of the Washington Post, whose parent company's only profitable business is Kaplan, an online university!).

The Times doubles down with the further assertions that online courses "are potentially disastrous for large numbers of struggling students who lack basic competencies" including the more than 60 percent of first time freshmen in the Cal State System (which does not include Berkeley, UCLA and the other well-known flagship "UC" schools) who need remedial instruction in math, English or both.

The truth is that online courses can be very effective helping students narrower skill sets transition to college expectations, and if properly structured, can actually produce better results in terms of learning "absorption" and "retention" -- two traditional measures of learning outcomes -- than traditional in-person courses. Online courses that offer similar credits in time-frames shorter than the typical "semester" -- and using the time saved to focus on "one course subject at a time" have been shown in multiple published studies to produce equal or better results than the ordinary lecture hall.

The Times, in short, is behind the times. The scores of public and non-profit private universities that have adopted online learning best practices have shown that everything from remedial algebra to Ph.D.'s in Psychology can be taught successfully online. There is no need any longer to look for proof of learning performance to the checkered track record of for-profit colleges, which pioneered online learning but coupled it with boiler-room marketing practices and shoddy student support systems. The Times' blanket rejection of the extraordinary work of Penn State, Villanova, UMass, Maryland, Indiana, Central Michigan, Georgia Tech, Regis, Marylhurst, Golden Gate University and others (not to mention MIT, Stanford and other "MOOC" entrepreneurs) should not and will not be the last word on the State of California's new openness to funding online access to college degrees.

The Times' editorial writers, it seems, just did not do their homework when before drafting their editorial. They it should have at least done enough research to understand that the state legislators whom they mocked for willingness to use the Web to advance the world's most long-standing "knowledge industry" were taking their lead from such distinguished educators as Mark Yudoff, outgoing Chancellor to the UC System, and Dean Christopher Edley of Berkeley's School of Law.

These leaders understand that the very students who need the most remedial help are also part of a generation that uses the Web routinely in their daily lives to buy (and even sell) good and services, connect with relatives, friends and other "likes," listen to their favorite music, and keep up with the "tweets" of their athletic and media heroes.

This is not to suggest that the traditional bricks and mortar of college campuses is going the way of Borders Books (or heaven forbid, print media). But right now, only 16 percent of all U.S. college students are following the traditional path of 4-year attending to earn degrees at residential colleges. The rest are working their way through in non-traditional settings - in most cases while working part- or even full-time. They're not visible at the sporting events we watch hooting and hollering at sports events every weekend of school year - those folks are the privileged few. A good many of the rest are bent over their laptops and tablets, at all hours of the day and night, in remedial math, MBA programs, corporate-sponsored graduate programs or even doctoral-level courses. Do all all these students, on whom our future economy depends, deserve to be labeled by the Times as junk graduates?

For the vast majority of today's actual college students, online is a lifeline to degree completion when done right. It is a godsend for working and single mothers trying to fit courses into their demanding lives. That the Times managed to ignore these realities in order to cast undocumented aspersions on Web-based learning will not be a proud day in the history of Times' editorials.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.