By Chris Tokuhama


“We must restore integrity to online learning and will not tolerate programs that fall short.”


This statement, issued as part of Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact, raised questions regarding the way in which online higher education is understood as part of a larger landscape. And, to be fair, perhaps some of this suspicion regarding online higher education is understandable given recent reports of cheating, a practice prevalent enough to warrant a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on cheating in MOOCs! And yet, at the same time, we see renewed confidence in platforms like Coursera, which recently raised $49.5 million even in the face of declining interest.


Fuller examinations of some of the issues raised by Clinton’s statement exceed the space available in this post. Instead, I will endeavor to suggest ways in which we might be able to better contextualize Clinton’s quote above.


Part of this process is understanding users’ motivations:  to what extent do online higher education participants seek credentials and/or to experience continued learning? Are these goals separated for users and is online higher education more conducive to achieving one type of outcome? Does a cultural logic that values achievement in the admission process privilege credentialing in ways that are perhaps detrimental to learning as the spirit of inquiry? Moreover, does online higher education afford us new opportunities to rethink how we can help students learn (e.g., gamification) and even provide alternative spaces for learning?


Additionally, much has been made over Democratic announcements regarding “affordablecollege—indeed, the quote that began this piece was taken from part of one such announcement—and it is difficult to argue against the potential for online higher education to potentially make knowledge more affordable and more accessible for those who seek it, in any combination of credentials and/or learning for learning’s sake. How do we understand online learning as a tool to help us achieve our goals and how do we best utilize it?


Moreover, discussion of online higher education is in some ways reminiscent of the debates surrounding for-profit education, with respect to concepts like “integrity” and “outcomes.” The question then becomes how new forms of education like online learning or for-profit can be understood as technological innovations and, as such, how they are subject to a familiar pattern of cultural anxieties around displacement.


At its core, Clinton’s statement gestures toward the way in which we fundamentally understand the role of higher education generally and online higher education in particular. Questions of higher education’s purpose have circulated in the past year and much of the discussion has centered on the bifurcation of college as a route to a job or, alternatively, as conduit to the development of personhood. In order to assess whether online learning programs are indeed “falling short,” we must first have a solid understanding of what it is that we hope for them to achieve. Does online learning supplement traditional in-class learning? Replace it? Does it offer an alternative to traditional models of education and, as such, must we endeavor to understand results in a different context? It is, I think, only after we begin to interrogate what we mean by “online learning” that we can hope to understand whether online learning is indeed falling short, and, if so, why.