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Unequal Classrooms: What Online Education Cannot Teach

Students at CUNY, where I teach, are often the first in their families to attend college, recent immigrants, or from low-income families, and sometimes all three. As a philosophy professor, I often require that my students defend a position in front of the classroom. For many, this is the first time they have spoken in front of a crowd of students from differing socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The experience is terrifying, but as one Latina student told me, even though her face still “lights up red” when she speaks, she is now able to raise her hand and contribute to class discussions. By the time that student graduates and walks into her first job interview, she will have learned to manage her fear of speaking her mind.

For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms. Yet more and more colleges are adopting MOOCs (massive open online courses), consisting of recorded lectures and online assignments.

MOOCs would seem like a promising way to increase access to education for those who cannot afford the steep price of a liberal-arts education. And indeed, my students often end up sitting in crowded lecture halls being lectured at by a professor who doesn’t even know their names—as is the case for many students across the country. Many of my students also work, some full time, or have families of their own, and they struggle to fulfill the course requirements for graduation. However, the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.

A college education bestows not just cognitive skills—mathematical, historical, and scientific knowledge—but practical skills—social, emotional, and behavioral competencies. Tenacious, confident, and socially competent employees have an edge over equally cognitively talented employees who lack those practical skills. What students cannot learn online are precisely those social skills.

One might argue that these skills are most appropriately learned at home, not in college. But here is where inequality rears its ugly head.

Children of middle-class families learn how to navigate middle-class social relationships at home. Children from impoverished communities often do not. This is not to say that children from impoverished communities lack practical skills, but rather that the social, emotional, and behavioral competencies they acquire are ones that are appropriate to their communities.

The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

The reluctance of some professors to embrace online education would seem to stem from nostalgia for a model of education that is not only unsustainable, but inaccessible for most students. However, I’m not suggesting that public universities should not rely on MOOCs to fulfill some of their teaching needs. Rather, our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds. The onus here is not just on the administration to lower class size, but also on college professors to foster the kind of classroom in which students can develop those elusive practical skills.

What is worrying is that the colleges that increasingly use MOOCs are precisely those that serve the communities that are in the greatest danger of not having developed the practical skills to navigate middle-class institutions. The Ivies are not suggesting that their students rely on MOOCs; San Jose State and CUNY are. This means that opportunities for impoverished students to be in classrooms with middle-class students and professors will decrease. When those students apply for jobs with their degrees in hand, they will be more likely to strike employers as lacking the social competencies that would make them a “good fit” for their companies. If MOOCs become the norm for colleges that serve students who do not yet belong to the middle class, the socioeconomic segregation of the educational system will extend to the postsecondary level, and we will see the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged grow, not shrink.

Jennifer M. Morton is an assistant professor of philosophy at the City College of the City University of New York.

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