Skeptical About Online STEM Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an opinion piece about online learning, which is  skeptical of it.  Not a surprise, considering the CHE is full of people from “brick-and-mortar” institutions.  And like the usual trend of these articles, it comes from a humanities professor.  First, I found myself in half agreement with a lot of the points Dr. Hieronymi makes.  But I’ll also point out that we can do some of those things with online classes.   Online instructors aren’t just Wikipedia articles that talk; most of them do work to help distill information and provide feedback to students.  But even then, there is something to be sad for having face-to-face interaction.  As someone who was a teaching assistant in an introductory programming class, I can say even “technical” skills can transfer more easily in person (sometimes it pays to see someone else do something on a computer right in front of you, instead of shuffling between windows and your program).

But I’m going to present a very different critique of online education, that I never hear anyone mention.  What on Earth happens to lab classes?  I have never heard anyone ever point out that science and engineering students actually do need to show up to some physical space to actually touch real equipment and do something with it.  Unless we’re going to drastically rewrite hazardous materials laws, chemistry majors aren’t about to start stockpiling hydrochloric acid in their houses and I’m not going to get to buy the neutron source I used for all my particle physics at Home Depot.

And we can’t just virtualize all these labs.  As long as science and engineering job requires people to physically manipulate materials and equipment to get appropriate settings and amounts, students will need to get used to dealing with the actual imperfections of stuff.  While it was incredibly cool to get to instantly change settings and watch blocks hit each other to show energy and momentum conversation on the lab software I used for my AP physics distance learning class in high school (or something like it), it was nothing at all like what I actually did in college.  In my freshman physics class in college, my partner and I had to actually calibrate equipment to get meaningful results.  Sometimes this was a painstaking process,  like spending an hour adjusting springs so the masses we were testing wouldn’t fly out of our bucket and change the momentum (and also be a safety hazard).  Other times it meant dealing with actual

The Department of Homeland Security gets suspicious if a kid starts buying too much material with this symbol

uncertainties, like wondering if a dent in a ball would throw off the rolling results.  And while it can be annoying, it’s also important that  STEM students understand the limits of what technology (and physics) will actually allow them to do.  Of course, this doesn’t mean I want to deprive students of technology that could make labs better.  It’s completely fine that we used a digital camera and a computer program to automate calculating the distance of discs on our air hockey table instead of spending 3 hours figuring it out by hand.  And it’s great that computer programs can automate lots of other data collection.  But students also need to be able to adjust equipment as conditions call for it, like adjusting a laser to observe different kind of samples or understanding that some microscopes disturb the material you’re observing.

To me, labs are the hardest thing to convert to distance learning unless we come up with some radically new way to allow students and other people in training access to materials and equipment.  I can see some ways for this to work , but it all seems complicated once you get to specifics.  In the long run, if this system works, it seems like it could probably equalize educational opportunities all over the country (and world), which I’m all for.  But it seems like in the short and medium term, we end up with a weird system as lab equipment stays in traditional places (and this could easily end up hurting regional education).  Let’s say that 30 or so years in the future, I’m living back in Kentucky and have two children.  For ease of pronoun reference, let’s say I have a daughter, Emma, and a son, Alan [note to self:  work on baby names].  My daughter is interested in cosmology.  You can study astrophysics (and that’s what most cosmologists have a degree in) at Kentucky schools, but there’s not many cosmologists on the faculties (to my knowledge), so Emma ends up applying to out-of-state and private schools that have more opportunities in her area of interest.  My son wants to be a pharmacist, and so wanting to save money for a Pharm.D (and maybe woo a pharmacy professor),  wants to stay in-state and go to the University of Kentucky’s brick and mortar program in chemical engineering (let’s assume state schools still exist).  Since Alan is a Kentucky resident, he should hear back fairly quickly from UK if his application is good, and we find out he gets in and he accepts.  Emma hears back later, and though she gets in to several brick and mortar programs, she doesn’t get admitted to MIT’s.  However, MIT does accept her into their online program which in the future can grant full bachelor’s degrees along with additional lab work.  Let’s say Emma decides to accept that to save money for grad school.

Here’s my question:  What does Emma do for all her lab courses in physics and astronomy?  Do we ship her off to Cambridge every year so she can complete two semesters worth of lab in a few weeks?  If so, then clearly MIT shouldn’t plan on razing all their dorms and facilities.  Or maybe MIT makes senior year be on campus, and Emma does nothing but run around doing labs and a senior thesis after finishing classes? Does Emma do the labs online?  I hope not.  Does she do physical labs somewhere in Kentucky, and MIT approves them for credit?  If so, MIT’s online degree is a lot less standardized than the traditional one if students routinely transfer all but a few lab credits from hundreds of other schools.  Does MIT arrange for her to do labs at a Kentucky school?  MIT or my family will probably need to reimburse the school for the lab fees.  What if these schools don’t have the same labs or equipment because they were designed for their own programs, which are structured differently from MIT’s?

You could say this example is incredibly specialized, and that’s true.  But that’s also the point.  In most of the discussions of online education, no one points out there are actual items on the curriculum that need to be done physically, and instead seem to only defend campuses for vague notions of “peer bonding” and “learning outside the classroom”.  While those things are important, I also find it equally reasonable to just point out there are things we do learn in classrooms that we can’t move online.   And this example still works on more common majors.  Looking up requirements  for chemical engineering at the University of Louisville, UIUC, UVA, and Rice University, I saw a few big differences in how their courses and labs are structured (see note below for details).

You could also argue that a university like MIT doesn’t need to give up it’s brick and mortar facilities because it’s so prestigious, people will always go there.  That’s probably also true.  But the flip side of the whole “online education solves the university bubble” solution is the implication that we just let weaker institutions fade out over time.  And this is where it seem like entire states could end up worse off.  The top 50 colleges and universities in the United States are not even close to being evenly spread around the country.  Hell, you can go up to the top 100 and still manage to miss a lot of states.

Map of campus ministries at top 100 US universities (as ranked by by US News). Source:

So what happens to the others, especially in poorer states with lower ranked universities?  Does Kentucky just quit funding physical facilities in it’s public system because none of our state schools ever made it big?  Probably not, since universities and their facilities are known to have a great positive impact on local economies.  And that’s part of the kicker.  Universities are more than just where people get education; they’re where lots of research that is vital to industry happens.  So unless we start separating these functions and until someone lets 20-year-olds buy nuclear materials for physics lab, I’ll still be rooting for the old-fashioned university campus.

Note on the different chemical engineering curriculums:  All the schools are ABET-accredited for the bachelor of science in chemical engineering.  But ABET accreditation covers an entire curriculum and just says we expect at least these minimums.  Schools can still play a lot with how they met those requirements.  UVA seems to make their ChemEs take more chemistry classes and more labs from the chemistry department.  Rice has more on hydraulic equipment, we think because of an older focus on oil.  And now Rice has their ChemEs do a lot of computer modeling.


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