typing hands blue
Losing Open Debate with Online Education

By July 21, 2014

Andrew Breland is a FIRE summer intern.

Almost ubiquitously, colleges mention some online component to their curriculum in their advertisements and promotions. Prominent national institutions like the Fletcher School at Tufts University advertise online classes as a boon to students. At that school, they advertise a one-year Global Master of Arts Program, prominently displaying the “33 weeks of internet mediated learning” requirement. Relatedly, Arizona State University recently signed an agreement with Starbucks to offer discounted online bachelor’s degrees to Starbucks employees. During the announcement, Arizona State President Michael Crow called the online programs “a first-class college education.”

Most will agree, though, that a “college education” connotes more than class time. The college experience is equally about the class work and the extracurricular. With that in mind, to what extent does online education—and the movement of universities to a digital platform—affect the exercise of freedom of speech of students enrolled online?

Important exchanges take place outside the classroom. As an undergraduate, I have arguably learned more from conversations during extracurricular activities than I have from in-class assignments and discussions. Online learning, however, provides fewer opportunities for interaction and makes this sort of learning largely inaccessible to students. While technology is attempting to bridge the gap created by physical distance between students, the current platforms universities adopt for their online courses largely omit personal interaction as a component of education. (One of the landmark studies about online learning suggests this may not be a bad thing.) This contradicts the university’s role as a forum for open debate. As online platforms and classes occupy a more prominent place in higher education and replace traditional methods of instruction, the free exchange of ideas is threatened.

Colleges and universities serve as a forum for free speech and open debate. Suggesting that free expression as part of a college education is fundamental to the learning environment, the Supreme Court has recognized public colleges’ obligation to allow discussion on campus. In Healy v. James (1972), the Court called college classrooms the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech on campuses, the Court suggests, is central to the American educational experience. As the Court wrote in Shelton v. Tucker (1960), “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

The Court has also suggested that without freedom of speech, our democracy is at risk. It stated in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957):

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. …To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Equally manifest as a fundamental principle of a democratic society is political freedom of the individual … enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Exercise of these basic freedoms in America has traditionally been through the media or political associations.

In other words, the freedom to study and discuss various topics on campus is critically important to the health of the nation. The Court’s treatment of this issue suggests a university’s role is more than education, that it transcends to facilitating discussion.

How does this apply to online learning? Universities offering online classes on Internet platforms usually begin with massive open online courses (MOOCs). Students watch a pre-recorded lecture, answer questions, and submit them for grading either by the professor or a computer. Having experienced this version of online courses last year, I find the experience to be lonely and disheartening; there is little interaction with another human. Some schools have added chatrooms and discussion threads to these courses, allowing students to pose questions to the group or post reading summaries. Too often, these open forums become the site of assignments and last-minute writing, rather than open debate.

In my own experience—five courses that have utilized online discussion boards—the boards in three courses became silent after the second week of class sessions. In the other two, while posts continued, debate was limited or nonexistent most weeks. While professors encouraged participation in the online forums, discussions that were not graded fell silent first, followed by those where an “A” required a single post a week. These features, as well as the board’s robotic, clunky interface, left me and other students happy to abandon the system.

There are more advanced systems that attempt to fix that. Programs championed by education groups edX and The Minerva Project incorporate some “face time” into their courses. Small groups meet in webcam-facilitated seminars.

Efforts to improve interaction, like webcam usage, are the furthest extent to which online learning has emulated the physical campus. Online education providers are aware of this still-existing problem, but still have failed to develop a response to criticisms. In an “Intelligence Squared” debate on this topic, edX CEO and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Anant Agarwal admitted that while providers are making progress on so-called peer-to-peer learning, most extant systems are lonely, robotic encounters. In the future, he expects more intimacy, aiming for a Facebook-like experience.

Meanwhile in the same debate, Columbia University Provost Jonathan Cole warns (quoting another MIT professor, Sherry Turkle) that digital connections are “not the kind of interaction that students have debating each other in class, involving the individual instructor to force people to confront their biases and presuppositions … .” While Agarwal might be right about the potential for the future, currently Internet communication at its best is not equivalent to on-campus discussion and debate.

None of this should be taken as a permanent indictment of online learning. Currently, many students (working professionals and non-traditional students, for example) greatly appreciate the opportunity to pursue a college education without the time or monetary constraints of traditional universities. Additionally, technological advances could someday deliver online platforms with the same potential for speech and interaction as traditional college environments, making these criticisms unnecessary. Until then, though, students and colleges alike should be aware of the consequences for open debate. Until exchange, expression, and debate are possible online like they are in person, the “first-class college education” President Crow guaranteed will be elusive.