Who Are Online Courses For?

The TPACK framework (read more here) illustrates the important overlap of Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge required of teachers when implementing technology in their classrooms. While it is easy to get lost in the technical application of technological tools, the TPACK framework is a reminder that the “why” (pedagogical goal) is just as important, if not more, than the “what” (technical tools). It is with this in mind that I read a recent Economic View column in the New York Times titled “Online Courses Are Harming Students Who Need the Most Help” by Susan Dynarski.

Much has been said and written about the pros and cons associated with the internet’s seemingly endless supply of knowledge and information. Furthermore, the role of online educational experiences is one of constant debate. However, there was one section of this article that addressed a new perspective on the online classroom experience. Why are we enrolling students in online classes? Is it for the students best interests, or for adults?

Many students are enrolled in online classes as the answer to a students failure in a traditional setting. However, it is not clear this is the correct intervention for struggling students.

As Dynarski explains

For example, in so-called credit recovery programs, many students who have flunked a course in an old-fashioned classroom retake the class online. The negative consequences may not be obvious at first, because the pass rates in these courses are very high and students who take them tend to graduate from high school instead of flunking out. What could be wrong with that?

But there is something wrong with it. In reality, students who complete these courses tend to do quite poorly on subsequent tests of academic knowledge. This suggests that these online recovery courses often give students an easy passing grade without teaching them very much.

Consider a study conducted in the Chicago high schools. Students who had failed algebra were randomly assigned either to online or to face-to-face recovery courses. The results were clear: Students in the online algebra courses learned much less than those who worked with a teacher in a classroom.

If students receive a better educational experience and perform better in the future after face-to-face recovery courses, then why are online recovery programs expanding? As Dynarski points out, a major cause for concern is that the negatives of these online courses are masked by short term success. Students pass online classes quickly, and often times cheaply. A potentially lethal combination for those trying to make decisions while considering the pressure of short budgets and four year graduation rates.

What is increasingly worrisome is the makeup of the student population in these online classes. As Dynarski explains it is often students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who end up in online only classes. These students historically lack the social capital to fully leverage the educational resources legally granted to them, and can easily be marginalized due to their lack of support or resources outside of school.

Dynarski’s article brings up an important point about the goal schools have in mind when they implement this technological tool – online classes. Is it to prepare students for the future by providing them with the best possible educational experience or is it a shortcut for matriculating the weakest students from the lowest socio-economic groups?

The danger that I see is not necessarily a future of all online learning. There are too many students that thrive in , and too many influential parents who demand face-to-face classes for that too happen. The danger is that we could end up in a segregated educational environment. One where the have’s are given a face-to-face environment of teacher support, collaboration and rigor, while the have-not’s are left to teach themselves.


Dynarski, Susan. “Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help.” New York Times, 19 Jan. 2018.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A new framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record 108 (6), 1017-1054.

2 thoughts on “Who Are Online Courses For?

  1. Regardless of socio-economic situation or technological prowess; all of these students will live in the same society.
    Whdivisions a and

  2. Your reply feature is disconcerting.It doesn’t allow for corrections or additions.
    One can’t read our comments and responses are truncated and virtually incoherent. I stand corrected. The problem is the incredibly slow printout. Unless prewritten; it’s difficult to create a cohesive comment without VERY long delays.
    Otherwise, your treatise is excellent and thought provoking.

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