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Don't let online education widen the digital divide



As a growing number of households gain access to the Web, bridging the digital divide, Gov. Jerry Brown has rightfully seen online education as a key strategy for delivering higher education opportunities to more students without the added costs, particularly in a state still struggling with debt.


There is also great need to proceed cautiously, however, lest we risk creating a reverse digital divide, in which low-income students, forced into online degree programs as the only affordable option, receive an education that lacks the immeasurable benefits of studying on a bricks-and-mortar campus.


The digital divide that President Barack Obama spoke of in his last State of the Union speech, reiterating his commitment to ensuring that 99 percent of America’s youths gain access to high-speed broadband, is still very real. Compared to more affluent peers, children from lower income families have less access to high-speed Internet service; their connectivity is more likely to occur through cellphones, for example, than computers. This is a worthwhile goal – access to computers and the Internet certainly leads to better learning outcomes.


That access is more important than ever as online learning comes into its own. Colleges and universities around the world are converting traditional courses to online formats. Some elite institutions such as MIT and Stanford have embraced broad outreach through Massive Open Online Courses; even those who have held back, including UCLA, have seen dramatic growth in the number of online courses and programs. Three years ago, a negligible percentage of UCLA undergraduates ever took a course online. Three years from now, the vast majority of graduating students will have taken at least one and probably more online courses for credit. This means that students who lack Internet access in their K-12 years will have even more catching up to do by college.


But as more households gain access to high-speed broadband, we must never mistake their ability to join an online course, even one taught by faculty at an elite university, as equal access to higher education. Even the best designed online courses and programs cannot provide the opportunities that a residential college offers. Survey after survey has shown us that extracurricular activities are every bit as important as a formal curriculum in student development. When asked about their most influential experiences in college, students and alumni are likely to mention friendships, community service, or independent study. Many cite leadership experience in student organizations and student-to-student networking as key to their professional success.


Critically, many future Ph.D.s and M.D.s gain their first taste for discovery, and their interest in graduate study, by working as undergraduates in the many science and engineering laboratories that populate our universities. Will students without such experiences be interested in pursuing higher degrees in these disciplines? Will this slow the closing of the opportunity gap in fields like science and engineering? These are serious issues that must be addressed as we expand access to online degree programs.


Of course tens of thousands of prospective students – adults who must balance work and family responsibilities with school, for example – cannot take advantage of a campus-based college experience. For them, the availability of low-cost online educational options can be a perfect fit, opening the door to life-changing professional and career development. Online learning is already expanding access to higher education, and our nation is stronger for it. I agree that educational institutions must vigorously develop their online capabilities and, to his credit, Brown has allotted funds that can be used to further explore this.


But as we advance our online teaching offerings, we must never back off our commitment to ensuring that low-income and first-generation students receive the support they need to physically – not virtually – attend college. We should not use the growing availability of online learning as a reason to disinvest in residential public higher education. A college degree from such institutions represents more than a collection of credit units. It also represents a holistic set of experiences, skills and opportunities that immeasurably enrich our lives. If we fail to promote equal access to residential colleges for all students, we may find ourselves with another damaging digital divide, unexpectedly, a reverse one, where lower income students rely more on digital technologies.


The cost of financial aid to enable low-income students to attend residential colleges is substantial. The cost of denying them this option and restricting them to online learning options is even greater.