Around 1986, I discovered that my Commodore 64 could link to other computers in a service named Q-Link. The speed of conversation was so slow I could see the letters of each word forming as the other person wrote his question. I would try to guess the question and start sending the answer at the same time. This sometimes failed. Once I argued for the existence of God when the person was asking me about the problem of evil . . . if memory serves (and it sometimes does not!). In any case, I love technology and remember signing up for a Liberty Bible College class with VHS videos because I thought it might be nifty.
It was not.
In any case, I have used tech in the classroom as much as I could, but rarely have seen it work out as well as a good discussion with candles! Still, as a founder of one of the first religious blogging conferences (GodBlog Con!), the editor of a book on social media, and a founder of three online programs (high school, Apologetics, general education), I am no enemy of technology in education. My good friend and colleague at The Saint Constantine School, Dr. Stacey, also worked to persuade me of the marvels of competency based education (some of which is online) and that program is still operating today.
What have I learned?
Features of a Good Online Education
Good online education begins with students in mind. What is best for them? What does online change?
The biggest change is geographic. You do not have to be in the same place. Sometimes the change can be time, you do not have to be working with a student at the same time (asynchronous learning). These can be real advantages. I have been able to hire a great professor in Oxford and let a few students mix it up with him without moving any of them. Imagine an opera singer in California pressing her question on a Lewis expert in Oxford! It can happen.
This is wonderful.
However, the mistake is to think that the Internet magically lets you mentor more students. In fact, my experience over the years says that to make up for the lack of “face-to-face,” class sizes may need to be smaller. Chat online needs to be longer to make up for the distance a screen produces.
Here is a basic mistake: don’t take bad onsite classes and replicate them online. If you are going to an onsite school that puts you in a class with hundreds of students in an amphitheater, drop the class. The performance might be great, if the lecture is good, but the discipleship: not going to happen. If that is the model, online can easily be as good as this bad class.
Let’s assume you want the best education you can afford, not the mere accredited credential. If so, then you will need to be mentored as Jesus, Socrates, and all great teachers did with their disciples. That means small class size and small loads for your teacher.
As a result, an online school has:
A professor/student ratio like onsite
The school can give you a full time professor. If they do not, but instead rely on graders and canned materials, why? Why don’t they do that for their onsite students? As one proponent said to me: “A farmer in Ohio does not need Shakespeare.” He was saying that the online students get what they want: a credential. The onsite students get a good education.
This is elitism run amuck and quite wicked. The school could give you a professor in a normal class with full access affordably. I have done it. What they cannot do is make big money to pay for buildings on their campus if they do so. The “profit” will be the same in a good online school.
The education will be better.
A professor who can teach class as she needs to fit her skills or a particular group of students (no homogenized curriculum)
Class with CS Lewis did not look like class with JRR Tolkien. Professors should be able to teach to their style and strengths and also adjust to your style and strengths.
Any “profits” are used to get grad rates to onsite levels
Because of social issues, online students tend to be higher risk to graduate than onsite students. A good program will use any profits to invest in retention programs (not more marketing) to keep those students on track. As a result, there will be no money (or little) left for projects unrelated to you. When a school has a 40% graduation rate online, they do not need to go find more freshman to keep churning students, but more support for those students. The student is not the failure often, but the process.
Management of program drawn from academics NOT marketers or admissions
Athens cannot meet Jerusalem on a profit based model. That’s why education is non-profit. We need good business practices (and that includes not pressing huge loans on our students), but we need educational plans written and administered by educators.This is not hard to do and produces good outcomes… maybe as good as onsite (research mixed) and can be a boon to some.
One warning: many online programs will hide the student teacher ratio by advertising small class sizes. The classes or cohorts are small but actual faculty are not available.
Instead, check out the full-time equivalent faculty count for the school and divide that into the number of students they claim to serve… And you’ll see what’s being hidden. Do they hire one full-time equivalent professor for every four classes? I have actually had online administrators repeatedly try not to answer the student professor ratio question!
Sadly, the biggest program is a lousy education. It may be accredited, but the accreditation is the aspiration not the minimum. You are getting a credential not discipleship, facts not wisdom. Liberty University is a great onsite campus paid for (in part) by a bad online program.
- professor to student ratios in the hundreds (that’s how money is made)
- a reliance on graders and call centers
- accreditation as the ceiling and not the floor
- leadership drawn from admissions and marketing
- a funnel that demands constant “new starting students” to keep the system going due to high turnover
- a heavy reliance on student debt
All of these things produce lower than average retention and pass on facts well, even credential well, but cannot by nature diciple. This is not a liberal arts education. Note: Jerry Falwell Jr. will not send his kids to such a program. A good teacher looks at his class and thinks: “How can I best educate this group of souls created in God’s image?”
Imagine instead a person looking at higher education and saying: “How can we maximize profit?” Imagine a meeting where the goal is for “cash cow” programs with the cash cow getting milked to supply butter for the privileged students. You don’t have to imagine, because that is how Liberty Online type programs are created.
Nobody builds the Liberty model thinking first of education, but of how to maximize profit. I am a free market guy, but ripping off one customer to help another is bad business long term. Online is new, the market is getting saturated, and I will bet that the bill for this model will soon come due.
One sales point is always: how can we build onsite campuses with this new revenue stream?
In any case, should a Christian college, think: “Well, it is either the crappy state education or our somewhat better online choices. We can make bank by doing some good.”? Instead, shouldn’t they think: “We can give awesome online classes with the same cash flow as onsite and do great good for our students.” Do you want a pastor that counts nickels and noses and thinks “more money, more ministry” or a man of God who thinks ministry first?
Professors mentoring as many as six hundred (Liberty) students cannot love them. I know most on site campuses are bad this way too, but let’s fix that, not make it worse!
Not one teacher would defend it.
I have hundreds of teacher and professor friends on social media. They have many political and social views. They argue about everything. Many work at schools that have Liberty style online programs. Not one faculty member would defend that program. Many wrote me privately and told horror stories of graders forced to pass nearly illiterate students. Sweat shop work conditions. Graders taking twelve classes to make a living.
It was horrible, but eye opening. Professors who would hassle me about many issues would not defend their own school on this issue. Why? They hate what they are forced to do. Boards are sold by the profit and by administration run meetings where opposition is hidden particularly in schools like Liberty with no tenure.
Don’t let student anecdotes fool you. Most students are quitting. The few that graduate often have no other experience and no idea what could have been done with their money. Many are very unhappy as a quick Google to evaluation boards shows. Critically important is to realize that good faculty who love Jesus make the best of it and do decent work. They are in a nearly impossible situation, but like the school teachers with no books and bad administrators in the public schools, they labor on. Often the results are fine, but this is despite the system not because of it.
The worst government school in Houston produces some great grads. Let’s not build another one because of it!
You can be sure if you poke around enough that the culture of televangelism will be under any move to the Liberty model. It is not the product of educators, but of grifters. Can good come of it? I know people saved by Benny Hinn, but I would not do business with him.
The result of Liberty online has been to build a beautiful onsite campus, because they were early to the graft. It also has cost them faculty support and their national reputation. People know that the online diplomas are of lesser value the way bad Cal State campuses are not viewed as equal to the University of California. The diploma does not say online, but the experience screams it to an interviewer.
The old diploma mills had fancy names (Patriot University) and no accreditation. These new Satanic mills have accreditation, but have perverted the purpose. Accreditation used to be basement that nobody had to struggle to reach. At no point at the University of Rochester did I ask if we were accredited. I still have not checked.
Because of course they are. They were so good that nobody asked. Accreditation was the first step . . . excellence the next. The Liberty model school flaunts accreditation, because that is what they are aiming at. The target is to be accredited and keep WASC, SACS, or NESAC off their backs.
This is a misuse of accreditation, but the agencies have (not yet) caught up to this. They will.
My school would not hire an online grad of this nearly diploma mill. Many others will not. Are there awesome exceptions? I am sure there are, but they are lost in the sea of mediocrity. God help good boards filled with honest pastors and business leaders to say “no” to the grifters, the educational hustlers, who would bring the world of televangelism to Christian education.
The Liberty model was born in that world and has never lost the problems.
Some further Links on This Issue
The first time I could find where I take on the Liberty model and propose an alternative: 2011 As a bonus, at around minute 23, I discuss why a President Trump should be taken seriously. Here is older, heavier me in 2014 weighing in (!) on the Liberty model as well. This is long term fight (I am not winning) . . . not just against weight, but creeping bad education! Finally, last year I summed it up in an essay here.