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Johnny Manziel Scores Again

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After a season of hurrahs, Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel is suddenly suffering some late hits. Last month, the Texas A&M quarterback was sacked by the media for posting an online photo flashing a wad of cash at a casino. This week, in the latest attempt at roughing the passer, Johnny Football has been blitzed for deciding to take all of his upcoming fall classes online.

But the Aggie star did not scramble to online learning haphazardly. After his on-the-field heroics last season, he found that his mere presence in the classroom created an untenable distraction from learning, both for himself and his classmates. Never one to fumble the ball, he opted to run to digital daylight. "It just happened to work out where it was good after the football season with all of the stuff going on," Manziel told reporters recently.

His rush to online learning has been booed by some. This is understandable. Online education is dogged by two common critiques: It is held to be both lower in quality and to lack the "full college experience" compared to the traditional, bricks-and-mortar setting.

However, like Alabama's defense last November, Manziel's critics are pursuing him in vain. A decade-long study of online learning finds its growth skyrocketing. "The rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education." According to the study's web site, thirty-one percent of higher education students currently are enrolled in one or more online courses. Over six million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 term. More important, the current, ten percent annual growth in online enrollments far exceeds the two percent growth in the overall student population.

Similar growth is predicted for high school education. Education experts Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn predict that, by 2019, fifty percent of all courses for grades 9-12 will be taken online. According to former U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, "by 2015, the number of students who are taking classes exclusively in physical brick-and-mortar spaces will shrink by two-thirds."

But what about the critics' concern with education quality? Online learning has in fact been shown to be produce superior learning outcomes when it takes the form of "hybrid" or "blended" learning, which combines online with face-to-face instruction. A 2009 Department of Education analysis of 44 separate studies comparing online with face-to-face instruction concluded that blended learning "has been more effective" than "conventional face-to-face classes."

But if online learning produces as good or even better learning outcomes than traditional instruction, what of the second knock on it--that it lacks the "full college experience" of traditional education? Sad to say, at most state universities today, roughly only half of the courses students take have the blessings of "face-to-face" interaction. Instead, students sit, by the hundreds, in cavernous lecture halls, interacting primarily with graduate-student instructors.

How do students pass their time during these mass lecture courses, which have all the intimacy of a Greyhound Bus station? As a former professor and administrator, I know how: They turn on their laptops and go online.

So much for the "full college experience."

Equally important, although Johnny Football studies outline out of convenience, for many others less fortunate than he, online learning is nothing but a necessity--and a blessing. Today, more than half of students enrolled in higher education are "nontraditional:" over age 25, or working full-time while studying, or with families of their own to support. They can ill afford to relocate to attend a four-year college. For more than a few of this, the new majority, the best if not only ticket to the American Dream is online education.

So, Manziel's critics need to call a time-out and rethink their game plan, because, in pursuing online learning, Johnny Football is proving to be as ahead of the pack off the field as he is in on it.

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Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author (with Gary Glenn) of Investigating American Democracy (Oxford University Press).