Inequality in online learning

Photo by Sara Schmitt

We should always be in pursuit of knowledge, and from the age of five we embark on this journey through a formalized process known as education. Living in the United States, we have access to a really good public education system; however, it is certainly far from perfect.

While every child has an equal opportunity to attend school, not all schools are created equal. There is a disparity between the quality of education in wealthy and poor districts. Through this system, however, it can be guaranteed that all students attending the same school have access to the same materials, resources and opportunities — that is until the introduction of online courses.

Established in 2005, the Georgia Department of Education developed a program known as Georgia Virtual School (GaVS), which provides accredited middle and high school courses throughout the state. GaVS’s intention is to ensure students’ opportunities are not limited by the school district that they attend.

Georgia is taking a step in the right direction to make public education more accessible. Now, students who want to take classes not offered by their school can do so. As long as the course “is part of the student’s regular school day,” the school will incur the cost of tuition and fees. Instead of attending lecture for one period, students taking courses from GaVS typically get a period off to complete the online course. Once completed, the class will be added to the student’s transcript and the grade will be averaged into the student’s GPA.

What about students who want to take courses in addition to their normal course load? These students are also permitted to take GaVS courses. The only difference is that the student must bear the cost of the course as opposed to the school. This difference is where things become unfair within the school level and should be cause for concern.

Students at the same school no longer have access to the same materials, resources and opportunities because a student who cannot afford to take online courses can no longer compete with the students that can.

To put it plainly, students now have the opportunity to buy their GPAs. Yes, additional work is involved because grades must be earned. But the opportunity to earn these grades can only happen if money is involved.

Consider two students, A and B, who take the same classes and earn the same grades. If student A is also able to take an online course, they are able to have a higher GPA and rank higher than student B who could only take advantage of the resources provided by the school.

Why does this matter? Our education system relies heavily upon GPAs and class rank. These numbers play a large part in determining the colleges that students get into and scholarship eligibility.

For example, several colleges, including Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, offer valedictorians and salutatorians automatic admission. Other schools give preference to students who rank in the top X% of their school. There are an endless number of merit-based scholarships that are solely awarded based on these two statistics. This could determine if a student can afford to go to college or not.

Not only does this system screw over students from low-income homes, but it changes the overall culture of a school. Students must become ultra competitive in order to stay up in the ranks. This trivializes learning into a race for the numbers instead of the pursuit of knowledge, which is an insult
to education.

There is a solution to the problem. Rather than including  online courses into a student’s GPA, they should just appear on transcripts as pass/fail credits. These courses are not worthless just because there is no numeric grade. Instead, it shows colleges that a student went above and beyond to seek out classes of interest. Furthermore, if students take a course’s corresponding AP exam then they can still get college credit.

It is not a perfect solution, and yes, wealthier students still reap the benefits. But, it levels the playing field for admissions and scholarships while maintaining the integrity of education, which should be pursued not for the grades, but for the love of learning.