Why Homeschoolers Should Be Wary of Online Degrees

A lot of homeschoolers are interested in online college courses, especially those of us with “gifted” kids who may be ready for college-level material in some subjects. PK, for instance, is currently about halfway through the first of these three courses on the Middle Ages, and so far so good, and a few lectures into this physics course–which is more challenging, not because of the material, but because the topic makes him think about questions like “does free will actually exist?” which is inherent to the subject matter but is an upsetting question for a 12-year old, so we don’t watch more than one episode a week. (It turns out that this “asynchronous development” thing is a real issue when a kid’s intellectual interests and capabilities far exceed his emotional ability to deal with the philosophical problems those intellectual interests raise.)

The courses I’m using, though, aren’t actual courses in the sense that one can “get credit” for them. We watch the lectures, and we learn stuff or not; there’s no test, no assignments. They’re the kind of courses people take simply because they’re interested in a subject rather than because they’re trying to get credit towards a certificate or a degree.

MOOCs, or “Massive Online Open Courses,” are a different thing. The idea with those is that anyone, anywhere, can sign up for an online course (“massive”) without being actually enrolled in the college or university offering them (“open”). So if you’re homeschooling, the thought is that, for a nominal fee, your kid can get some college credit, or maybe at least you’ll have some kind of documentation from somewhere that your kid did, in fact, complete a course and maybe a grade to go with it. Sounds like a good idea, no? Especially if your kid is 2e, with some issue (in PK’s case, anxiety and being only 12) that would make it difficult or impossible for him or her to take a regular in-person college course at, say, the local community college.

I’m a former college professor, though, as well as a homeschooling parent. So I’ve heard quite a bit about the concerns that my former academic colleagues have about these kinds of courses, and I want to point out some reasons why other homeschoolers might want to have a look at this horse’s teeth.

First, a couple of pretty basic problems with courses of this kind.

  • they’re easy to cheat in (how does the instructor know that the enrolled student is the one doing the work?). Even if you yourself don’t cheat, this means that the “credit” you’re getting from the course is compromised.
  • peer evaluation/interaction/discussion–which is a common way of trying to provide feedback to what can be thousands of students since obviously whoever is teaching the course cannot possibly interact with every student individually–is at best haphazard; if the course is truly “open” then there’s no guarantee that the other students taking the course, your peers, are anywhere near your own level of interest or ability in the course. Certainly they don’t have anything like the knowledge the instructor has.

There are more substantive problems, though. This blog post, The MOOC Bubble: Where Do We Go From Here?, gets at some of them:

  • the claim that MOOCs are a good idea for students with disabilities perpetuates “the frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is–exclusionary. The trade offs are vastly unequal: instead of school, here is an online link; instead of a professor, here is a video, instead of a place at the table, another table is set…. It desensitizes us, however perversely, to the very issue we should be more alert to in this drama: access and equal opportunity.”
  • the claim that MOOCs democratize education might very well lead to the opposite. After all, if you can provide what academics call “service” courses–introductory lectures and other core requirements–through MOOCs, that saves money (you don’t have to house these students or maintain huge lecture halls). Which means that you can stop offering those courses except online, making it harder rather than easier for general ed students to actually have the experience of meeting real professors and participating in campus life.

I guarantee you that that last one is the idea behind the University of Wisconsin’s recent announcement that it’s going to offer bachelor’s degrees to people who can pass a bunch of tests showing that they know a subject. Talk about a way to cut your state’s investment in higher ed–tell students that from here on out they can “complete their education independently” and then get their diplomas by taking a bunch of online tests. No need for instructors or even courses.

Which leads to my most fundamental problem with this whole idea of replacing physical schools with online ones: it blurs the distinction between education and credentialing. Which admittedly is a distinction that our society as a whole does a hard time of keeping clear, but it’s one that I think it’s really important that colleges and universities try to maintain rather than give up on.

See, the point of education isn’t just “to get a job”–even if many employers “require” a college degree. (In my experience, for jobs that don’t actually require such a thing, but that’s a whole separate issue.) And one of the things that makes college different than K-12 for the bright students, the geeks, the kids who had a hard time in school is that at college they’re finally surrounded by people who care about learning for its own sake. There are plenty of kids who are only interested in the grades and graduating, sure–but the culture of colleges and universities is that that instrumental idea of education is frowned upon.

Which is why MOOCs and online degrees are dangerous. The more states refuse to fund higher education, the harder it’s going to be for colleges and universities to keep going, and the more they’re going to need to do this kind of thing to try to stay afloat. That’s also why tuition and fees at colleges are so much higher than they used to be. It’s a real vicious cycle (and we’re seeing it in public K-12, too): less money, and the money that’s there is getting spent on things like sports teams to “improve the brand” or high-salaried administrators or buying and administering standardized tests and expensive fixed curriculums. Less money means compromised educations: in K-12 arts and music are luxuries, and in college core courses are increasingly taught by adjuncts, the college equivalent of temporary employees–instructors with degrees but no offices and no time or support to continue the research that would keep their knowledge fresh (K-12 teachers don’t get time or support to do anything but try to keep afloat, either). Compromised educations means more people–like many homeschoolers–dropping out of the system. But where we continue to want the diplomas and degrees–which are, after all, legally and/or socially mandatory–we end up being the audience for privatized courses. Including things like MOOCs and online degrees from institutions willing to sell them. Including legitimate universities and colleges that are trying to plug the revenue holes left by legislators (like Wisconsin’s governor) who think only of what something costs and nothing at all about what it’s worth.


I think this privatizing and monetizing of education is a cycle that homeschoolers really need to be aware of and vocal about. Not least because the more we treat education as just a series of diplomas or classes that one can buy, the harder it becomes for schools and colleges to justify things like “non-essential” or “non-core” courses, experimenting in the classroom, tenure, small discussion seminars, creative learning. The less of that there is, the less rewarding teaching or professorial jobs become; would you want to be a teacher nowadays? And if people who value inquiry and education and creativity don’t want to go into teaching or higher education, because there’s less and less space for those things, then there end up being far fewer people who can make a living by thinking or doing research or really teaching well. Because while the purpose of education isn’t to get a job, people who love education do need to make a living. And the less we recognize that education is fundamentally about people, the fewer opportunities there are for people who actually want to learn, explore, and think to find like-minded and knowledgeable folks who can help them do that.


6 responses to “Why Homeschoolers Should Be Wary of Online Degrees

  • Becca

    Competency based education, which is what the Wisconsin program is about, has a long progressive history. There certainly may be cost-cutting aspects to it – there generally are in today’s public education decisions – and there are certainly money-making aspects, but there’s a great baby in with that bathwater that I wouldn’t want thrown under the MOOC bus, so to speak.

  • tedra

    Agreed, and I’m actually in favor of competency-based credit. I’m not in favor of a competency-based bachelor’s degree wholesale, and I’m really suspicious about this kind of thing coming out of WI right now.

  • Jodie

    So are the people of Wisconsin. This is just another of Mr. Walker’s tricks to undermine teachers in the public view.

  • Deb Nam-Krane

    How I would LOVE to see money in education be spent on teachers and students and not renovations, initiatives and sports teams.

  • School of Smock

    I’m a fellow mom and blogger. I first came across your site when I was looking for Buffalo mom sites. (I had just moved from Boston to Buffalo.) Nevertheless, I was confused a bit at first :) I’m also a doctoral candidate in education policy. I’ve been researching and writing about homeschooling, and I’ve started a project about understanding homeschooling families’ experiences. Here is an article in Home Education Magazine about my recent writing:
    I’d really love to hear more from the parents of gifted children. I would really appreciate it if you completed my survey. You don’t have to leave your name, and I won’t share any of your information. Here’s a link to the survey and more information about it:
    Please let me know if you have any questions! Thanks, Jessica

  • tedra

    Thanks for the links–and nice to meet you! I’m dying for research on homeschooling; so glad you found this blog!

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