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Online Education Needs to Understand the Difference Between Generic “Students” and Real People

We know the statistics – community college enrollment in the pandemic has plummeted across the nation and in California.  Now LAist has filled in those statistics with real people by conducting a series of interviews with students who’ve dropped out, and is encouraging others to share videos explaining why they couldn’t continue their education.  

Qualitative data has its limits, of course, but it’s still very important to be able to get a detailed sense of what real people are actually struggling with, rather than just reading a fill-in-the-blank survey.  And what we’re hearing so far is that there are three problem areas:  money, time, and a lack of engagement with online education.  

Money is obvious – unemployment is sky high, whole industries are paralyzed, and the people who are the most vulnerable are hurting.  And education costs money.  The social cost of not going to college, of course, is high both for the individual and for society:  studies clearly show that a more educated workforce boosts total economic output and growth.  When people at the bottom of the economy can’t afford an education, the whole economy suffers.  

Time is a similarly obvious constraint:  the pandemic has made everything harder, and many people – especially working parents – simply can’t keep up.  

“I’m a single mother of two boys,” one woman told LAist. “So I now had to become a full-time parent, full-time teacher, and full-time worker all at once at home.”  That meant dropping out of community college.  

Online classes might seem like an easy answer to this problem – and in some cases they are.  The flexibility that some online classes offer can be a godsend to people whose lives are unpredictable and need a little leeway.  But classes still take time to complete – they are college courses, after all – and even if college can be made free, time may still be a constraining factor.  Online classes also lag far behind traditional colleges in certain areas – hands on technical training, for example, in fields like automotive mechanics, culinary arts, and laboratory work.  Online education is a great step forward for some students, in some areas, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution that works for every case.  Colleges need to innovate new business models if they’re going to become affordable for the people who need them most – but they’re going to have to innovate new educational models if they’re going to offer a robust online education in many fields to a diverse population of students.

This is especially true given the third factor:  that for many students, online education just isn’t as motivating as traditional college.  Research shows that the difference is stark:  people who want an online education, for whom it’s their first choice, are generally very happy with it, even happier than they would be at traditional colleges.  But people who don’t want it, for whom it’s a second or third choice, are often dissatisfied.  

Is there a way to make online colleges more appealing to a broader cross-section of students, with diverse needs and learning styles?  The answer is yes – of course there is – but it’s going to require embracing the potential for there to be many kinds of online learning, not just one kind.  

Young, single, working parents looking to get a business degree may need a different kind of online education than people in midlife who were laid off from a struggling industry and are looking to reskill for a more competitive job market.  Add to that the complexity of people with different learning styles needing different kinds of support, and it becomes abundantly clear that a revolution in online learning is going to require many different models so that education can meet students where they are.  

To do this, we need to know who the students are: not just as statistics, but as people.  

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