Online Schools Are Like ATMs.

The best and worst universities have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from the popularity of online education.  The best have spent years cementing their reputation, and a foray into online education does not pose a risk to that reputation.  The worst of the lot know that they do not have a reputed brand, and so they have nothing to lose.  With the financial aid that often comes with an increase in online education (more on this in an upcoming Edudemic article), they have everything to gain, as long as they stay a step ahead of the regulators.

Colleges At Risk

The only ones that face a risk are the ones in the middle, and specifically the small and medium size colleges.  They do have a reputation, which can suffer a loss, should their entry into online education go awry, and they also operate in a world of tight budgets. Such colleges should not pass up on online education.  We propose that these colleges have a lot to gain, but they need to get the fundamentals (the when, where, what and how of online education) right, so that they can take advantage of the ongoing (and continuing) technology shift.

Technology shifts are difficult to live through but once they are done, it is easy to forget how difficult the transition was.  In the initial stages, there is typically a burgeoning demand for the technology, plenty of naysayers, and many providers of questionable quality. We are going through exactly this phase in higher education.  A few decades ago our banks went through a similar technology shift with the introduction of the ATMs.

Online Schools Are Like ATMs

A Fortune magazine article describes how strange it was a few decades ago for Americans to interact with ATMs. Everyone was used to asking for their hard-earned money from a human being behind a bank window.

They wanted to see, with their very own eyes, each bill counted out by the teller. They required a receipt, hand-stamped by an employee of the bank, indicating that their paycheck had indeed been deposited. When the ATM arrived, it came along like an insult–not just as progress, but as preemption, a ploy to get customers to stop using expensive human tellers.

Many people also thought (even the banks!) that the ATM machines would mean the end of human tellers.  In the very same way online higher education is seen by many as a “ploy” to provide cheap and by implication lower quality education.  Even a large impersonal higher ed classrooms with a hundred students is sometimes preferable to online education.


The naysayers to online education cite indicators like extent of human contact, class size, and “sense of community” to conclude that online education is (and has to be) of lower quality than traditional education.

However we believe that reality is far different and that the traditional view is no longer suitable.  The indicators of quality should be based on outcomes and not the process.  In response to the current clientele and the modern environment, education needs to prioritize service and improve quality, and online education, done right, provides exactly that.  Here are some examples:

WHEN:  Education when you want it:  ATM machines contributed to a higher quality of service by allowing customers to conduct bank transactions whenever they wanted. Online education can provide education to the students whenever they want it.  Students with full time jobs will not have to interrupt their day job to attend classes.  Many online classes can be taken at the student’s convenience

WHERE: Education where you want it:   ATMs also brought banking services closer to their customers.  An individual bank could not afford to have a brick and mortar bank in every district, but most could afford to have ATM machines where they did not have a branch, thus bringing banking services to hitherto unserved populations.   Colleges cannot afford to have campuses across the country, but with online education they can extend their presence to anywhere in the world.  After a hard day at the job, the hard working office worker who is trying to get an education part time, probably does not feel like driving 15-20 miles (or more) to sit in a classroom for a lecture.   With online education, the staffer can go to the one place he wants to after work – which is home – and turn on the computer to participate in the class or do an assignment.

WHAT: The multidisciplinary education you want (when the best collaborate with the best):  The “what” that bank customers wanted was to be able to use any ATM machine to get their funds.  Initially ATM machines of one bank did not “talk” to ATM machines of another Bank and customers of one bank could not use their bank cards at the ATM machine of another bank.  However banks quickly learned that it was to their benefit if they allowed their customers to use other ATMs.  So what if Bank of Adams Morgan did not have an ATM in a particular area Bank Dupont Circle did.  By connecting Bank of Adams Morgan and Bank Dupont Circe to one network, and charging a surcharge to their customers, both banks benefited.  Perhaps one earned a transaction fee and the other had a satisfied customer.  Enabling this kind of collaboration is also a key benefit of online education.

With the rise of many new disciplines, and rising interest in multidisciplinary studies, students need colleges to get the “what” right.  For instance for some students the “what” could be learning about biotechnology with particular emphasis on environmental management.  The college they attend perhaps has an excellent biology program, but the technology part is weak.  Through collaboration, colleges could work together to provide a course that uses the best faculty and course materials for biology, technology, and environmental management.  This way schools can combine their strengths and provide a higher quality educational experience to college students.

HOW: How can we respond to the demand for customized education ?:  Over time banks have figured out how to give highly customized products to the clients via ATMs.  Customers wanted ATM machines that could be customized so that visually or hearing challenged customers could use them.  The demand for convenience meant that ATM machines were located in stores, gas stations, malls, and other public places.  Some ATMs will also allow for changes to personal information, such as PIN IDs or phone contact information.  In the same way students may want, for instance an intensive but short tutorial just on quadratic equations, and not an entire algebra course, as this was the one place they got stuck.  Online education can provide a highly customized education.

What’s Next?

In summary, we believe that there is a need to fight back against the myth that online education is in any way worse than traditional education.  In fact in many ways, when done right, it can provide a higher quality of service as well as improved educational outcomes.  In spite of what we have said in this article there will be some who will not be convinced.  Among this group, there are a significant number of educators who do not let their lack of basic technology skills stop them from expressing their opposition to online education.

This is similar to the absurdity of someone opining on architecture, but at the same time owning up to lacking a sense of design and aesthetics.  In our next Edudemic article, we will take a closer look at the anti-technology culture (“don’t know, don’t like, don’t care”) in higher education, the adverse affect it has on the survivability of the colleges “in the middle”, and some ways to tackle it.

About The Authors

Dr. Abir Qasem is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and Director of Academic Computing at Bridgewater College. He has a PhD from Lehigh University and has worked on software projects with DoE, FAA, TechX and Carnegie Mellon University.

Tanya Gupta has worked on technology and development for the World Bank’s Latin America and the Caribbean Region, and is now working in the Bank’s Corporate Finance and Risk Management unit as Senior Resource Management Officer.

1 Comment

  1. clifford@MBA online

    November 2, 2012 at 10:09 am

    We totally agree with the online schools are like ATM point and brick and mortar schools will never disappear, but people will get totally used to go to an online school.