The Good, Bad and Ethical Issues of Online Education

Online education is a trend that has been increasing in popularity over the past decade. According to studies by re:fuel, the number of college students taking online classes has doubled over the past five years. High school students enrolled in online courses has been on a steady increase as well, and recently, middle school students have jumped on the e-learning bandwagon.

The question that lingers in the minds of parents and educators is whether or not online courses can give students the same discussion-rich, well-rounded learning experience as traditional “brick and mortar” classrooms can.


Online courses, especially college online courses, can be quite beneficial for a busy student. The courses are flexible as far as time management because students don’t have to commute and sit in a class at a given time during a week. Online classes can often be more cost-effective than traditional classes and can be done at a pace the student is comfortable with.

For middle and high school students, the logistics of online courses can also be beneficial. Adding online classes to their regular classload can help struggling or at-risk students make up failed or missed credits attributable to truancy or being transient. By being able to play “catch up” online, students can graduate on time with their classmates.


While logistically sound, taking too many online courses or having poor online instruction can be harmful to a student’s future.

One of the most glaring issues with online education is the lack of interpersonal communication. If an online course has any sort of discussion element, it is usually written discussion in the form of an online post. For students looking to become successful outside the classroom in any career that requires verbal communication skills, this could be considered a significant drawback.

A big disadvantage to middle and high school students is the lack of one-on-one support. Many at-risk students are behind in reading and math. If they are using online courses to “catch up,” they may find themselves faltering for further explanation or intervention when they don’t grasp a concept.

While having a schedule of online courses can be good for practicing time management for the highly motivated and focused student, it can also be the downfall for students who lack these basic skills. If a student struggles with putting away the video games, signing off Facebook and ignoring the cell phone, finding time to do the online classes and all the coursework on his or her own time could be a major challenge.

Ethical Issues

One of the most concerning ethical questions facing the credibility of online education is that of rigor and grade-level expectations.

Some online courses consist of pre-programmed software that has the student read or listen to a lecture and then take a test or quiz. The computer (or software) scores the assessments and either passes the student on or not. If these courses are not closely managed, what keeps students from cheating or having someone who can read and understand the content better take the assessments for them?

Other online classes involve an actual teacher running the class with deadlines for assignments and discussion questions that need to be posted. Because the online classroom is not made up of a room of “real” bodies, it is less likely for students to have outside discussion surrounding the behavior or content of the teacher’s “lectures.” This opens up the possibility of online instructors using the virtual classroom to push political, religious or other views on students.

In certain circumstances, online classes can be highly beneficial. However, like anything, too much can have a negative impact. Earning an entire degree or diploma using online education may have an unintended outcome on the student.

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Cathy Earle