As colleges and universities invest in the latest computer technology to ride the early wave of euphoria over online distance education, the College Board study cautions that the trend could actually create barriers to higher education for poor and minority students.
In addition, the study, along with another to be released next week by the American Federation of Teachers, raises concerns about assessing the quality of courses offered online. The AFT report takes issue with the conclusion of several studies that online courses can be just as rigorous and successful as those presented in a traditional classroom setting.
In the past year or two, many schools have started to offer online courses, and some even offer entire degree programs over the Internet. So far, the course offerings have been targeted to the booming adult-learner market: working adults who have little time between career and family obligations to travel several times a week to a college campus for further training, and are attracted instead to the convenience of taking a course via computer at home or in the office.
But some think that the online market will expand to include some of the bread-and-butter core courses that undergraduates have traditionally taken in campus classrooms. Last year, Pennsylvania State University ran a test with four online courses that enrolled about 40 students. This year, it launched its World Campus, an array of 30 online courses across 10 programs that currently enroll 400, most of whom are graduate students.
Temple University has nearly three dozen online courses, with an enrollment of 500 or so students, mostly at the graduate level. University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School has joined forces with Caliber Learning to offer graduate business courses, using a combination of online and video-conferencing technology.
"There is no doubt the World Wide Web shatters barriers of time and space in the delivery of instruction," Lawrence E. Gladieux, the College Board's executive director for policy analysis, writes in its report. "But its advent is also likely to create new barriers and inequities, simply because of differential availability of the required technology."
The report, using U.S. Department of Commerce data, notes that, while 41 percent of white households have a computer, only 19 percent of black families and 19 percent of Latino families do.
And according to the Higher Education Research Institute, 80 percent of freshmen at private universities used e-mail in the past year, compared with 64 percent at public four-year colleges and only 41 percent at public, historically black colleges. Such statistics, the report warns, raise concern that a greater focus on online education will actually prove a barrier to poor and minority students.
Gary Miller, associate vice president of distance education at Penn State, dismissed such criticism. "By using the new technology, you're extending the university learning experience to more people," he said.
"Because the new technology has not reached everyone yet isn't a reason not to pursue it," Miller said. "If you use that line of thinking, there would be no college campuses in the country.
"And it doesn't mean it won't expand," he said. "Because of their perceived benefit, the penetration of radio ... into homes occurred at a much faster rate than one might have expected during the 1930s, given the economic situation." By venturing into online education, universities will generate demand and spur the market, forcing online access onto the social-policy agenda, he said.
The College Board report warns that private philanthropy alone -- much less the marketplace itself -- cannot fix the problem of access, and argues that government must play a role.
Lee Alley, associate vice president for distance education at Temple, agreed that, if access to the new online courses is not managed well, it could become a problem. But he also said he thinks that, for most schools, online education will be a supplement, and not a replacement, for traditional methods of instruction, or for the many safety nets and supports that commonly come with a campus-based education.
While both reports question the potential quality of online courses, Miller and Alley both argue that online offerings can be even better than classroom courses, and that the new competition from online offerings can generate improved quality across higher education.
"Online distance education marks a real shift in buyer-side clout," Alley said. "The epicenter of choice will be shifted to students, and that competition will push quality up to a new max that you don't currently see in a lot of remote college campuses."
Mathew Simond is a journalist and copywriter. He is also a webmaster of many websites including http://www.psychologycolleges.net and http://www.religiousstudiesonline.org He aims to provide healthy information and advice on academic degrees.