Despite Some Advantages, Online Education Has a “Dark Underbelly”

© 2021, Farok J. Contractor, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers Business School

Note: The following commentary is based on my experience teaching remotely during the pandemic.  It does not directly reflect on Rutgers University.

The pandemic has accelerated and legitimized online learning. The institution where I teach—Rutgers Business School (New Brunswick and Newark)—has been completely online for the past two semesters. Online instruction has benefits: it reduces costs for the university; distance becomes irrelevant—I’ve had students logging on from Singapore, Kuwait, and China; and if sessions are pre-recorded, students can log on any time, view the sessions again, and learn at their own pace. But there are also serious problems—some seemingly unsolvable.

Problems of Online Learning

Several problems afflict online learning, immediately and in the long run, that threaten to debase and cheapen education and the value of diplomas. Compared with face-to-face classroom teaching, the quality of instruction is degraded. For subjects such as software coding or accounting, a highly motivated and diligent student can extract, say, 90 percent of the educational value. But studies show that most students do not have a high degree of self-motivation. Staring at a small screen for more than one or two hours is draining. And for subjects that involve nuanced understanding and critical decision-making, the subtleties that can be covered in classroom instruction are lost in a virtual environment.

The Most Serious Problem: Cheating

Deans may pretend that online proctoring of exams works. It does not. There is no way to prevent cheating. Even if there is so-called online proctoring, a student with hands underneath the table can be texting other students, tutors, and third parties using their mobile phones. A second computer screen, not visible, could be displaying any material or website the student can access, including “chat rooms” where students collaborate with one another. In one class, within a half-hour of my first virtual class meeting, the students had already organized themselves into a WhatsApp group. Cheating has the result of boosting the scores of dishonest students and, worse, penalizing honest students in a comparative scoring, where the final grade is based on relative ranking. The magnitude of the problem was highlighted for me on January 31, 2021, when searching Google using the keywords “How to cheat in online exams” produced 8,180,000 results, including tips and techniques to circumvent proctoring, YouTube videos, and model answers.

Source: ThatOneMohamed YouTube Channel (2020)

Faculty have responded to this online problem in two ways:

  1.  Some teachers have dispensed with tests altogether and mainly rely on “group” projects. Group projects do have some learning value if the team members coach one another and learn. Unfortunately, very often one or two members of a team will carry the bulk of the workload and write the report, while the rest of the team members coast along as “free-riders.” To illustrate, let’s say a team consists of five members, all of whom are listed as authors on two completed group projects. In Project No. 1, team members A and B do the actual work, and the names of students C, D, and E are added under the title of the report, even though they have contributed nothing. In Project No. 2, team members C and D do the actual work, and the names of members A, B, and E are added to the report. Note that member E did no work at all on either project.
  2. Other faculty have responded to the cheating problem by simply engaging in grade inflation to avoid unfairly punishing honest students that may score lower than their cheating counterparts. For example, where previously the grade distribution for a class may have been As, Bs, Cs, and Ds, with online teaching the grades would range only over As and Bs because of the legitimate concern that a minority of students will continue to be honest and could lose out in relative ranking. The instructor’s reasoning is, “Yes, I know grade inflation is bad. But at least this way I will not be unfairly penalizing honest students, who will at least receive a decent grade (even if some receive a higher grade than they would have earned in face-to-face, proctored tests and exams). Those that cheat will get better grades than they deserve, but that’s something beyond my control in a virtual environment.
How Online Education Will Exacerbate Societal Problems

Starting more than a century ago, inventions such as telephones, automobiles, televisions, personal computers, mobile phones, and social media have progressively begun to fragment humanity. And now we have distance learning. Online instruction is here to stay; but I fear it can exacerbate societal problems of loneliness and fragmentation, which lead to addictions and diseases of despair.

Source: Chang (2016)

The problem is at its worst in the US, with its diverse population thinly scattered over a continent-size landmass. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since the year 2000 more than three-quarters of a million Americans have died from drug overdoses, including 81,000 from opioids in 2020 alone (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). Most of these addictions and deaths, many of them suicides, are attributable to loneliness and despair in American society (Association for Psychological Science, 2017). Physical presence in a classroom gives at least some opportunities for human interaction.

Source: Association for Psychological Science (2017)

Alarmingly, there is an even more serious long-term problem than suicides: the erosion of an enlightened and moral society. College and university admissions offices once relied on SAT or ACT scores to indicate how well students might perform in an institution of higher learning. Now, many schools are not only waiving the optional essay and subject tests in the SAT, but are dropping the requirement to take standardized tests entirely, leaving in question the capabilities of students entering their institutions (Associated Press, 2021; Vigdor & Diaz, 2020). Employers during job interviews used to rely on college diplomas and transcripts to assess how candidates have performed; but if these indicators cannot truly distinguish between good and mediocre performers—especially with the problem of cheating becoming rampant—then how is merit to be judged? Historically, the US has shined as a dynamic economy because competition and meritocracy have mattered (Goldman & Kaplan, 2018).[1] The story of Horatio Alger (an American boy who, through dint of hard work, honesty, and education, raised himself to a prosperous middle-class status) reflected the so-called “Protestant work ethic” in many Western countries—the idea that God will reward effort and virtue with material progress. (Worth noting is that the idea of meritocracy has recently come under severe attack in the US on the grounds that it is not hard work and intelligence that determine success, but rather family wealth and connections, educational quality based on well-endowed school districts, and/or private schooling in places where the wealthy concentrate—thus perpetuating or worsening inequality in US society.) Today, the prime exponents of a brutally winnowing, meritocratic examination process are found in emerging nations such as Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, which have risen to rich country status. Frequently, their students out-perform American students in testing, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. Sadly, this trend is likely to continue.

Conclusions

Online education is here to stay, partially displacing in-person classes. It can work reasonably well for simple, rote subjects, provided the learners are highly motivated (although most are not). At close to zero incremental cost, it can expand the reach of education in terms of the numbers of persons taught and can transcend the limits of geography (and time zones for pre-recorded, asynchronous lectures). However, as a medium for communicating complex, nuanced, and sophisticated subject matter, or for engaging students in active discussion as a part of successful learning, online instruction leaves much to be desired compared with in-person education. Even the glaring problem of cheating could be partially managed if all tests were administered in examination halls with strict proctoring, other traditional safeguards, and technical fixes such as the jamming of mobile phone signals.[2] If the spread of online education necessarily means that a society tolerates cheating, chooses not to distinguish between good and bad performers, and forfeits imparting the ability to critically analyze sophisticated subject matter, then what was once a societal and economic meritocratic edge in the US can be lost in the fog of egalitarian mediocrity and fuzzy morality. I look forward to the day I can return to my physical classes.

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REFERENCES 

AP (2021, January 19). SAT doing away with optional essay, subject tests. Associated Press. APS (2017, October 5). Does using Facebook make people lonelier? Association for Psychological Science.  CDC (2020, December 17). Overdose deaths accelerating during COVID-19: Expanded prevention efforts needed. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Chang, S. (2016, September 27). In 1906, one magazine warned of the loneliness of “wireless telegraphy.” Quartz (Punch Magazine, London). Goodman, R. & Kaplan, S. (2018, January 4). The mantra of meritocracy. Stanford Social Innovation Review.  ThatOneMohamed YouTube Channel (2020, December 1). HOW TO CHEAT IN AN ONLINE PROCTORED EXAM! 😉😏 | 2020. #HOWTOCHEATINPROCTOREDEXAM2020 #HOWTOCHEATINANONLINEEXAM2020 #HOWTOCHEATINONLINEPROCTOREDEXAM2020. YouTube.  Vigdor, N. & Diaz, J. (2020, May 21). More colleges are waiving SAT and ACT requirements. New York Times.

NOTES

[1] This is just one article among thousands of examples. [2] Suggestions such as jamming mobile phone signals produce reactions of horror among deans and educational administrators, especially in the US, a litigious society with the highest numbers of lawyers per capita and a public with strong notions of individual freedom and privacy—albeit with weak beliefs about collective responsibility.

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