There’s a lot we’re not learning when we try to learn online

Online learning, in 2016, is no longer the cautious experiment it once was. Universities all over the world are warming up to the idea of internet-based degree programs, while free online education—popularly offered in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs—remains a booming area.

There are obvious benefits: Online courses are accessible to anyone with a computer, (usually) cheaper than a brick-and-mortar education, and can be helpful to those who are in the middle of their careers or have other full-time commitments.

But e-learning is still lacking in certain key areas. One of its drawbacks is a heavy skew toward certain subjects—a problem that results not from uneven offerings, but from a lopsided modern mindset about the role of education, and the inherent pitfalls of trying to learn from the internet in the first place.

In search of the direct payoff

Take the example of Coursera, the free online education platform with more than 15 million users around the world, which uploads video-format courses from acclaimed universities. Below are the site’s 20 most popular courses right now, provided by the company to Quartz:

Course Taught at:
1. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects University of California, San Diego
2. Mastering Data Analysis in Excel Duke University
3. Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) University of Michigan
4. Machine Learning Stanford University
5. R Programming Johns Hopkins University
6. The Data Scientist’s Toolbox Johns Hopkins University
7. Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World University of Virginia
8. An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1) Rice University
9. Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and ‘Skills University of Michigan
10. Introduction to Financial Accounting University of Pennsylvania
11. Introduction to Public Speaking University of Washington
12. Programming Mobile Applications for Android Handheld Systems: Part 1 University of Maryland, College Park
13. Introduction to Marketing University of Pennsylvania
14. Grammar and Punctuation University of California, Irvine
15. Introduction to Corporate Finance University of Pennsylvania
16. Principles of Valuation: Time Value of Money University of Michigan
17. Chinese for Beginners Peking University
18. Introduction to Programming with MATLAB Vanderbilt University
19. Project Management: The Basics for Success University of California, Irvine
20. Introduction to Big Data University of California, San Diego

You’ll notice a clear trend. The vast majority of the courses have to do with technology or other computer-based skills; the remaining ones revolve around career advancement (Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills, for example) or personal enrichment (Tibetan Buddhist Meditation).

“There’s been a lot of interest in courses that are more about personal and professional development—you’ll see courses on how to learn, how to reason, how to find happiness and fulfillment, as well as courses that are more skills-oriented,” Coursera president and co-founder Daphne Koller tells Quartz, adding that the company is currently looking to “build out a catalog” in those areas.

At edX, the MOOC platform launched by MIT and Harvard in 2012, a similar landscape is emerging. The company provided Quartz with its five most popular courses of 2015:

Course Taught by:
1. CS50 Harvard University
2. Introduction to Programming With Python Massachusetts Institute of Technology
3. Introduction to Linux Jerry Cooperstein
4. HTML5 World Wide Web Consortium
5. The Science of Happiness University of California, Berkeley

The patterns are clear. “Overall, it’s obvious skills are important,” edX spokeswoman Rachel Lapal tells Quartz. “[The most popular courses are] courses people can use to help them get jobs that are open today, open in the future.”

But while these jobs- and skills-based courses offer a wealth of opportunities to people who want to advance their careers, missing from the list of Coursera or edX’s most popular courses are the liberal arts classes—the nuanced curriculums of history, art, literature; the enriching experiences that comprise the heart of higher education; in other words, learning for learning’s sake. This tendency also is reflected in the world of paid online degrees: In US News and World Report’s recent ranking of top online degree programs, every category was a profession-specific degree.

The tepid interest in online liberal arts education is not for lack of availability. On edX’s site, there are 130 courses listed under “Humanities” and 65 listed under “Arts and Culture”—fairly sizable competition for the site’s 129 courses in “Business and Management” and the 114 in “Science.”

A handful of factors are responsible for people’s relative disinterest in humanities-based online education. With MOOCs, Koller says, many users tend to already have at least an undergraduate degree under their belt, which leads them to pursue skill-specific courses. And for online degree programs, there’s simply not as much interest in liberal arts graduate degrees as there is for other areas like business and nursing. (Part of this is reflective of declining interest in liberal arts graduate degrees in general, though.)

Another reason that applies to both paid and free courses is the sheer lack of an immediate payoff with non-skills-based education. Consider being presented with this choice: Would you rather spend 10 hours a week learning how to impress your boss into giving you a promotion, or studying the details of the Northern Crusades? The answer is obvious—right?

Limits of a limitless classroom

“If I can take a nursing degree, that’s going to have an immediate effect on my career—whereas if I get my degree in French history online, it’s not going to have that payoff,” says Isabel Allen, a biostatistics professor at University of California San Francisco and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which examines open education in the US.

According to Babson’s annual reports, the effects of the economic downturn of 2008—which actually served as a huge boon to online education platforms, as people rushed to lock down skills that would save their jobs or find them new ones—are still being felt today. People are still afraid of losing their jobs or needing to switch careers, Allen says, so they’re spending hours “retooling themselves online.”

But the relative disinterest in esoteric studies online also has to do with the less-than-immersive ways in which these courses tend to be taught—it makes it generally hard for people to engage with them. “It’s just easier to teach math online because you’re asked to do a problem and there’s an answer,” Allen tells Quartz.

In the online world, then, education has largely been seen as a stepping stone to immediate personal gain—not enrichment or intellectualism, they way it often is viewed on college campuses. And that’s the main reason e-learning, right now, isn’t on its way to becoming the be-all, end-all of education some fear (or hope) it to be: because it simply doesn’t embody all the characteristics of what higher education is.

Of course, the growth in online education won’t necessarily stay one-dimensional for long. “I think it’s early days to say what’s moving online and what’s not,” Koller, the Coursera president, says. She predicts business degrees—as well as courses related to public policy—will flourish, but declines to speculate on the “size of the audience” for other programs and skills.

For now, though: If you want to learn how to code or speak another language, online education can be a quality investment that won’t drain your finances or your time. But if you’re looking for deep, engaging discussions with peers about art or philosophy—better to send in those applications to the local university campus, after all.

Image by University of Essex on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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