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In an appearance on a recent episode of Wes Moore’s “Future City” podcast on education technology, Moore asked me about online education and its potential to be “more democratic,” allowing underserved and underesourced students access to educational opportunities. 

I said that in the absence of other opportunities, something online is better than nothing at all. (I said a bunch of other stuff too. It’s around 14:45 into the recording.) I also said as an educational experience, those online credentials are vastly inferior, but still, doesn’t something have to be better than nothing?

I’m wondering about that now. I’m wondering because I’ve had the opportunity to review the English 101 curriculum at StraighterLine, an online education provider whose “on demand general education courses” are guaranteed to transfer for college credit to over 100 partnering institutions, one of which is McNeese St. University in Lake Charles, LA, where I taught English 101 from 1994-97 as a graduate student. 

Students can now avoid the English 101 requirement by completing the StraighterLine equivalent for $79 (once you’ve signed up for the monthly membership of $99).[1] 

Should they?

I suppose it depends on what one values, an education, or a relatively cheap and easy path toward a credential.

Even with the membership sign up, English 101 on StraighterLine will only cost you $178 for the course. At my local community college (Trident Tech), cost per credit hour is $184, so a 3-hour English 101 course will cost you $552.  At SOWELA Tech, the closest 2-year school to McNeese St., the course would be $846. At McNeese, 3 hours of credit as a part time student is just over $1,000.

But based on a review of the course syllabus and engaging with the free trial, if the goal is an experience that takes advantage of even a fraction of what is known about effective approaches to developing as a writer, StraighterLine is educational malpractice.

At StraighterLine, English 101 uses a “modes” approach to composition, teaching different forms such as narrative and compare and contrast essays. Coincidentally (or maybe not), we used the same curriculum when I started at McNeese St. in 1994.

It was out of date even then.

More troubling is the sequencing of the material. The first lesson, which must be completed before trying any other lesson, is on “plagiarism,” and features a link to the very useful (as a reference) Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) as well as a short slide presentation on the StraighterLine philosophy toward plagiarism, including a warning that those who are found guilty of an offense being informed they will fail the course.

The second unit is titled, “Proper Grammar: Friend or Foe?” If you are curious as to how proper grammar could be a “foe,” I join your confusion.

Similar to the plagiarism lesson, there is a slide deck presentation with audio narration that sounds like it was recorded by a human attempting to sound like a computer, which is attempting to sound like a human. The introduction to comma use has this tidbit, “To talk, you have to breathe – although most teenage girls are able to stretch this rule to the limit. The comma replaces that breath in your writing, but where and when to use it can be confusing.”

I’m troubled by this material for several reasons beyond the casual sexism in the above statement.

For one, regarding plagiarism and source use, we know that it is better to teach students a holistic view of sources and sourcing rather than a list of decontextualized rules. For two, in an effort to make it easier to follow and enforce those rules, they give bad advice.

The plagiarism unit quiz has the following question:

“True or False: If research is not required for an essay, you should avoid research so you can avoid the temptation to take ideas from others.”

Because I was a lousy StraighterLine student and didn’t view the slides first, I got this wrong. I answered “false.” The StraighterLine answer is “true.”

But oh, how I need people to understand that if the goal is to help students truly learn to write, the answer must be false. Writing is for audiences. Writing is to engage the world. Even if we are writing something in which sources may not be directly cited, the idea that we should wall ourselves off from possible sources of inspiration or edification in order to avoid “plagiarism” is nutso cuckoo.

But those values are not at play in the StraighterLine course.

Being exposed to a gestalt that helps students better understand and engage with writing in different contexts is subsumed to that more direct path to a credential.

Honestly, thinking about students being exposed to this material made me sad.

The grammar and commas lessons are rote and also without context, a technique that has been discredited since the 1950’s. More sad making.

StraighterLine does require the completion of actual writing assignments in addition to the quizzes that accompany each unit. Those writing assignments are read by “tutors” who provide feedback. I’m not spending $178 just to see what kind of feedback an assignment receives, so I can’t comment on that part of the course, though it appears for the less expensive option, you can’t necessarily expect the same “tutor” to read each attempt.

On the plus side, there is some attention to the writing process, though this appears to be assessed by a quiz of the “What are the steps in the writing process?” variety, rather than an instructor examining the student work and commenting on where issues with process may be evident in the writing and discussing future approaches.

StraighterLine’s deficiencies are not inherent to the Internet and writing instruction. Writing can absolutely be taught effectively over the internet, though those who have done it will tell you it is every bit as time consuming and demanding as teaching writing face-to-face. A more up-to-date curriculum could be designed. Better lessons and approaches exist, and most of all, it could be staffed by an instructor who will engage with the same students over an extended period of time, giving deep personalized attention to each, but there is no incentive for StraighterLine to adapt or improve curriculum as long as students are enrolling and their partner institutions continue to give transfer credit. They are fulfilling every bit of their mission.

StraigherLine is the logical extension of credentialism, and is a prime example of Tressie McMillian Cottom’s “LowerEd,” a bargain basement experience that passes muster for credit at for-profit institutions interested in efficiency, or non-profit public institutions (like McNeese St.) that are perpetually strapped for resources. StraighterLine is no scam. In this category, they're one of the good ones. They deliver exactly what they promise, which is the problem.

Perhaps it plays a necessary role for those who are held back from advancement for lack of a credential, but let’s not kid ourselves that it has much to do with education.

“Solutions” like StraighterLine will only exacerbate the gaps between those who have access to face-to-face education and those who don’t.

To that end, it fits the legacy of much of educational technology. If you are among the have’s, you get to use technology as a tool. If you are among the have nots, you must subsume yourself to the technology.

If this is the future of education, if this is the only education available to people because of cost or other issues of access, we’re in a lot of trouble.

[1] There is also a $129 version of the course that comes with a specific “professor” assigned. 

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