Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 50-52
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The Chancellor’s New Robes: Online Education
Stan Braude1, Jon Merrill2
1Biology Department, Washington University, St. Louis, USA
2Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, USA
Received June 8th, 2013; re vise d J uly 10th, 2013; accepted July 18th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Stan Braude, Jon Merrill. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Com-
mons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pro-
vided the original work is pr ope rly cited.
Online education is being rapidly embraced as a cash cow for reputable universities. Although there are
legitimate advantages to online learning, the data on learning outcomes are scarce. We point out the rea-
sons why high quality, live classes are unlikely to be replaced by online alternatives. However, we do de-
scribe the poor teaching practices that can be inexpensively replaced by online courses. We finally point
out that best practices and high quality online education are expensive and cannot generate the revenue
expected by university administrators.
Keywords: Online Education; Distance Learning
Online education is the latest innovation in distance learning
and is expanding at an astounding rate. Pianko and Jarrett (2012)
report that from 2002 to 2012 the number of undergraduate
students taking online courses increased by approximately 25
percent. Students report that cost, flexibility in timing, location
and availability all contribute to the attractiveness of online
education. Online courses have moved into the mainstream and
Parker et al. (2011) estimate that 61% of liberal arts colleges,
79% of research universities, and 82% of community college
offer some online options.
Is the Online University an
Unprecedented Innovation?
We must keep in mind that distance learning is not new and
the recent rise in online higher education courses is only the
most recent innovation in the expansion of access to education
that has roots in the correspondence courses of the late 19th and
early 20th centu ries. Although the na me “corre sponde nce c o u rse ”
evokes ridicule and the assumption of fraud, the first corre-
spondence courses were pioneered in 1874 by Illinois Wesleyan
University in an honest attempt to reach out to a broader audi-
ence. With the advent of television, came the possibility of
offering the distance learner an experience that went beyond the
printed page and again universities attempted to reach out to
broader audiences of students with the first televised college
courses offered by the University of Houston in 1953. Today,
adult education through public television has shifted from broad-
cast lectures to documentary films, but the legitimate educa-
tional motives remain the same.
Despite the amount of bandwidth taken up by marketing and
pictures of kittens, the world-wide-web does provide public
access to an unprecedented amount of information. Hence it is
not surprising that distance learning has entered this venue as
well. Once again it was a public university that made the first
attempts at computerized learning, with PLATO (programmed
logic for automated teaching operations) offered by the Univer-
sity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1960. However, the
interest in online courses did not explode until the for-profit,
University of Phoenix began offering degrees in 1989.
What Are the Pedagogic Advantages
of Online Learning?
Beyond the goal of reaching a broader student population,
there exist a number of legitimate pedagogical and practical
benefits for some students. Online courses offer an opportunity
for self-paced and student-centered learning. Asynchronous
online courses offer students the freedom to work on the course
material when they have time, perhaps after work hours or on
weekends. Recorded online lectures can be paused at any point
so that students can take notes without missing what is ex-
plained next. Students can also view video examples or read
supplementary materials linked to the lecture. Finally, synchro-
nous discussion threads and synchronous online chatrooms may
be less intimidating for those students who have become more
comfortable in an online social environment than a live envi-
Student satisfaction with online cour ses has been well tra cked
and Hartnett et al. (2011) note that, across the board, online
students are intrinsically more motivated than their on-campus
peers. This is not surprising because a major difference in these
populations is that the majority of online students enroll out of
interest in a topic, rather than to fulfill a degree requirement.
This intrinsic motivation was correlated with initial engagement
and retention. Nonetheless, overall retention rates are much
lower in online courses compared to the national average for
college students (Herbert, 2006) and the students who complete
outcome surveys are, therefore, likely to represent a skewed
subset of the population of stu dents originally enrolling in on lin e
courses. More importantly, satisfaction is a marketing outcome
that does not necessarily reflect learning. Consequently, there
exists much skepticism of the claims of better educational out-
comes from online courses.
In response to the repeated claims that there are thousands of
studies supporting the efficacy of online education, the US De-
partment of Education co mmissi oned a meta -analy sis of re se a r c h
on online learning. The 2010 DOE investigation involved a
systematic search of empirical studies documenting the effec-
tiveness of online and distance learning published between
1996 and 2008. The initial search of published research yielded
1132 articles, of which only 176 met three key criteria: they
investigated learning taking place partially or entirely over the
internet, they included a controlled, experimental design, and
finally, they reported data on student achievement or other
learning outcomes. Of these, only 99 articles compared face-to-
face learning to online education and only 37 articles specifi-
cally examined the variation in online learning practices and
those effects on the learner at the undergraduate level. This is a
far cry from thousands of articles. Furthermore, while the meta-
analysis found that students in courses with an online compo-
nent had modestly better outcomes than students receiving only
face-to-face education, these results were not due to any unique
characteristic of the online medium, but were attributed to the
high motivation of the subset of students who completed online
courses, and to the amount of time they spent studying.
Will the Live Classroom Go
the Way of Live Theatre?
Prognosticators predicted the demise of live theatre when
Edison introduced moving pictures and the demise of movie
theatres when CBS beg an broadcast ing television. And yet live
theatre flourishes even in the era of Netflix and Youtube. There
is an attraction to live experiences compared to remote. But
why is the live performance attractive and how might that me-
chanism explain the pedagogic benefits of the live classroom
Daniel Levitin (2006) suggested that music is a combination
of familiar pattern and surprise. More broadly Braude (2013)
proposed that our brains have evolved to reward us for recog-
nizing the subtle surprises against a variety of background pat-
terns. This same mechanism is involved in our enjoyment of
humor and literature and may also explain the attraction of live
performance where there is always the opportunity for surprise.
The film Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and
Claire Danes will obviously be consistent between viewings.
However, a performance of Romeo and Juliet in the theatre will
be different every night!
The opportunity for surprise contributes to the heightened
attention and alertness associated with the live classroom and
this enhances learning. This element is lacking in asynchronous
online courses. Additionally, the social aspect to being in class
with one’s peers is lost in online courses. This social compo-
nent may explain the attraction of the live setting for a large
portion of the population, but does the “face-to-face” experi-
ence lead to better education? Goran and Braude (2007) argue
that, in addition to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners,
there are also social learners. Essentially, while we may not all
seek out a social learning setting, being with others, especially
peers, raises alertness and this alone can lead to better learning
opportunity. This is consistent with Schutte’s (1998) finding
that collaborative learning with peers is the key factor in ex-
plaining higher performance of classroom learners compared
with online learners and Frankola’s (2001) finding that personal
connection is one of the most important factors in boosting
completion rates. She also reported that NYU students found
that the social aspect with their peers was helpful in their stud-
ies, and nearly all of the NYU online students who completed
online coursework reported that live sessions provided an emo-
tional lift.
Who Is at Risk of Replacement
by an Online Course?
Despite the apparent benefit of a live classroom setting, does
all education necessarily have to be confined within the class-
room? The live setting creates the opportunity for the instructor
to make a great impact on the experience of their students.
However, not all instructors are influential and inspiring. Con-
sequently, courses that have been taught by a lecturer reading
directly from note s or relying solely on the text might be easily
replaced by a video of a better lecturer. Furthermore, courses
involving repeated practice to enhance memorization and re-
gurgitation might also be easily transferred to the online do-
main. Neuman (1998) argues that these courses are for “stress-
ing fundamentals as well as helping students gain real skills”
and student performance can be easily automated. We propose
the general guideline that any course in which student perform-
ance can be evaluated with multiple-choice exams is a candi-
date for replacement by an online offering. We challenge our
colleagues to examine their own teaching and consider whether
their teaching could be easily replaced with an online alterna-
tive. While t he mission of many higher education institutions is
to create the beginnings of “life-long learning”, the courses de-
scribed above fall short of these institutional goals and instead
emphasize memorization of knowledge.
What Do We Look for in the
Best Online Courses?
The best online courses are those that creatively engage the
student. Excellent online courses contain: synchronous discus-
sions, small class size, qualified discussion leaders and graders,
timely grading and feedback on written work, and engaging
lectures. Synchronous discussion takes the place of in-class dis-
cussions. With discussion, students are able to articulate ideas
and analyze the arguments of others. An excellent online course
features this aspect of the education process. Furthermore,
qualified discussion leaders and graders are necessary to pro-
vide quality content for online students. Qualified instructors
should be chosen to provide quality content. Additionally,
small class sizes allow the instructors to get to know their stu-
dents on a more individual level. While it is easy to get lost in a
lecture hall of 300 students; how much easier in an online class
of 300?
The asynchronous features of an excellent online course should
include access to exciting lectures, links to related material,
high quality graphics, and videos. The paradox is, however, that
it is not cheap to incorporate these features into an online
course. Graphics and videos, alone, require time and effort to
create. Also, in many disciplines, there is new, pertinent, in-
formation being generated yearly, requiring materials to be up-
dated. Considering the requirement for low student-teacher r a t io s ,
qualified discussion leaders, high quality video and graphics,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 51
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
and up to date materials it is difficult to imagine how these new
robes will earn the high profits that have enticed our adminis-
Follow the Money
Despite the dearth of evidence to support the claims of effec-
tiveness with online courses, many institutions are beginning to
sign-up. A majority of surveyed college presidents see potential
for growth in online education (Parker et al., 2011) and George
Washington University, Boston University, Northeastern Uni-
versity, University of Southern California are just a few of the
many high profile intuitions that have established partnerships
with online outsourcing companies. One expectation might be
that massive online courses allow more students to enroll, thus
increasing tuition revenue per class. However, closer examina-
tion of Embanet, Brisk Education, Compass Knowledge Group,
and other providers of online platforms, reveals a major flaw in
the financial reasoning. These companies reap up to 85% of
tuition income for the courses they facilitate. Unless enroll-
ments soar, the universities that employ these companies will
actually lose a vast amount of tuition revenue.
Furthermore, we must be realistic about the fact that devel-
oping massive online courses requires an enormous commit-
ment of time and effort on the part of the faculty who had been
originally hired to teach students on campus. Faculty involved
in online course preparation quickly discovers that the genera-
tion of high quality instructional material is extremely time
consuming (Neuman, 1998). On top of this, online course de-
velopment requires even greater foresight and planning than a
live class because students may be working at their own pace
and interaction between students and faculty may be infrequent.
The University of Phoenix has shown that one can generate
profit by offering courses that depend on the student reading a
text and watching videos. In the end, more students enrolled
will lead to more tuition dollars. On the other hand, colleges
and universities that hope to continue offering high quality
teaching and opportunities for learning, must factor in the nec-
essary time and resources.
In conclusion, it is clear that there exist legitimate benefits of
online education for some students and that high quality teach-
ing and learning can be achieved through online courses. How-
ever, quality online education is as expensive to produce and to
provide as quality classroom education. Unfortunately, the lead-
ers of many top universities are not immune to the appeal of the
latest fashion and online courses appear to be little more than
the Chancellor’s new robes.
We would like to thank Gina Frey and the Educational Re-
search Group at Washington University for feedback on the
arguments outlined in this essay
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