How We Cheat Online Students out of an Education


A number of online programs now have a “plain language” requirement for course content. This means that course content cannot use words that might be unknown to some students; institutions enforce the policy by keeping the content language at or below a designated education level. That level can be anywhere from sixth to 10th grade. Course developers are given these parameters, and often a separate group goes through the course content to replace big words with small ones and replace outside resources that are above the proscribed level. Here are some examples from actual institutional guidelines:

  • Change “locate” to “find.”
  • Change “throughout” to “in.”
  • Change “adequate” to “enough.”
  • Change “diameter” to “distance across.”
  • Change “mitigate” to “fix.”
  • Do not use a sentence with a negative, such as “It will not snow today,” because it requires the student to understand both the meaning of “snow” and “not.”

Regulations like these don’t come from a learning perspective. Indeed, they prevent learning. The fact that a student does not know something is not a reason to withhold that knowledge from the student but a reason to teach it to them. We don’t learn by encountering what we already know; we learn by encountering what we don’t already know. Instead of withholding learning from students, we should foster it.

Plain language directives in online learning have multiple sources. One is the desire to include people with limited exposure to complex vocabulary. This rationale, however, overlooks the importance of preparing students for word-rich environments, like jobs requiring a college degree. Students who are not familiar with college-level words are precisely those that need exposure to them to develop their vocabularies.  Keeping them at a K–12 level only harms their future prospects by withholding the education that they have paid for.

A second source involves confusion between assessments and learning content. It is good practice to avoid negatives within sentences on assessments because they can induce confusion about the question itself, leading students who know the answer to respond incorrectly. As assessments are for measuring content knowledge, such errors undermine the accuracy of the assessment. But this rationale does not apply to learning content, where the purpose is to produce learning, not measure prior learning. What began with assessments has been uncritically applied to the separate category of learning content.

A third source is the conflation of marketing and teaching. I find that online content formatting rules often come from the marketing department, such as the requirement that all course presentations use the slide template that marketing provides. Similarly, the plain language rules often come from marketing departments that apply the fundamental marketing principle that advertising language should be as simple as possible to avoid losing potential customers. Teaching, of course, is not marketing—it has a fundamentally different purpose—yet this marketing rule has migrated into course design requirements.  

The desire to “meet students where they are” is perfectly legitimate as long as we understand that learning involves moving from where we are to someplace new by encountering something new. When I went to college many years ago, students were advised to keep a dictionary with them to learn any new words. Today, we can make it easier on students by linking higher-level words in online courses to their definitions so that anyone who does not know the word can quickly learn it. The words then become learning moments. By eliminating these words from courses, we are only depriving the students who need to expand their vocabularies of the education they are owed.

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