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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Online is not a Siphon to Keep the Public U Running on Empty

I understand why Gov. Jerry Brown went to the University of California and California State University board meetings this week. He wants to protect the political meaning of his Proposition 30 victory, which is that state funds will not be cut, so student tuition should not go up.  He knows that in the death grip binding higher ed officials to state politicians, fee increases are annual and automatic. Naturally, the UC Regents and the CSU Trustees were slated to celebrate the Prop 30 victory with some variable tuition increases for professional degrees.  Gov. Brown headed these off by saying they need more study.  Hence Nanette Asimov's headline writer at the San Francisco Chronicle entitled her coverage, "Brown Makes Sure Regents on the Right Path." Gov. Brown was cast in the role of the Regents' AA sponsor keeping them away from the fee-hike vino.

But they were also supposed to stay away from the state-funding mineral water as well.

Large increases in public funding are the only alternative to big tuition hikes--if not next year then the year after--that would recover educational quality at the two state systems.  Brown cut 25% of UC and CSU's state outlay in 2011-12, threatened another 10% "trigger cut" mid year in 2012-13 if Prop 30 passed, and implied yesterday that a 6% increase is borderline piggish. I won't belabor this point: I have a piece on deck at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the inefficient and unjust asymmetry in which massive one-year cuts are reasonable but full one-year restorations are not.  But I do note that we suffer from a widespread cultural bias that shows up as a naive susceptibility to budgetary determinism when it is catastrophic, paired with deep doubts about our right to organize rebuilding as a common, public activity.  I believe this bias is related to our confidence in technology and to our doubt about the arts, humanities, culture, and the social sciences, in spite of the manifest evidence of the transformative impact of the latter on hearts and minds.  Michael just wrote about irrational prejudice against the humanities, and we will come back to the educational issues in later posts.

Meanwhile, Gov Brown made some naive remarks about the budgetary powers of online education. The Regents love to hear how technology can cut hundreds of millions from administrative budgets and the same goes for education budgets as well.  Gov. Brown seems to have compared higher education to the post office losing its letter business to email, an analogy that suggests absence of thought about how learning is not like reading a department store catalog.  Gov. Brown gave an interview to the LA Times in September that referenced a 20-year-old attack on UC and contempt for its powers of innovation, but in any case he won a sales call for some unnamed MOOC and online vendors at the next Regents meeting in January.

There is much to be said for online both pro and con. I for one would love to be able to use it when "blended" with my courses to intensify the routine feedback to students that, thanks to twenty years of budget cuts, we simply don't have the human staffing to perform.

But online instruction needs to be debated and implemented as an educational rather than a budgetary matter.  We should establish as a principle never to discuss online in the context of monologues about how the state doesn't have to give higher education more money.  The underlying principle that needs to be recollected is that it is the teaching faculty's professional and formal, institutional obligation to control curricular decisions. The Academic Senate should block or reject any presentation to the Regents about educational techniques that comes from corporate marketers with no aligned presentation of online issues from UC faculty.

I don't expect the Regents to understand the educational issues. That is why their own bylaws restrict their authority over UC education.  But I do expect them to understand that implementing educational upgrades will require major new funding.  Inventing the DARPA-net cost a fortune in the first place, as has every round of ethernet wiring, upgrading of ethernet, and subsequent conversion to wireless, to say nothing of endless hardware and software churning year in year out.

All these upgrades have involve direct transfers of university money to Silicon Valley.  Now UC needs another upgrade, this time to "UC quality" blended online that is integrated into and not simply imposed upon existing curricula that decades of expensive, publicly funded human capital development have produced.  But now UC is broke, partly because Gov. Brown, like Gov. Schwarzenegger before him, balances the budget on the backs of lower and higher education, and partly because the state's business leaders, starting with Silicon Valley, are world-class tax avoiders whose profit increases outstrip increases in their tax burden by a ratio of about 5:1 (Display 62).

So now we have the possibility of wealthy Silicon Valley telling the heads of the impoverished University of California that it doesn't know its own business of education and needs to turn some of its revenue streams over them them.  I do expect the Regents to understand the regressive politics if not the lowered educational outcomes that this would entail, and to keep UC education in the hands of UC faculty even as they find the funding to help us with technological updating.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I worked at UC Berkeley for twenty years (1987 – 2007), first as the assistant director of the Instructional Technology Program and latter as a senior strategist for Educational Technology Services (which resulted from a merger of ITP and the Office of Media Services). Also, as part of my role in ITP, I initiated the first campus wide Learning Management System service on the Berkeley campus. Finally, for about eight years I staffed the Chancellor’s Computing and Communications Policy Board’s Instructional Technology subcommittee (the CCCPB-IT). So, I have a fair amount of experience with Instructional Technology at the Berkeley campus.

So, for those who claim that the University has done all it can to find ways to reduce the cost of instruction through the use of information technology, I have one question: Who, if anyone, has the authority and the mandate to be in charge of this effort.

Some might think that units that provide services related to Instructional Technology and Education Technology might have some mandate and authority to pursue the goal of cost reduction, but they would be very wrong if they believed this to be the case. We could look for ways to improve the quality of instruction, but I know from personal experience that we would run into stiff resistance if we explicitly started even talking about ways to reduce the cost of instruction.

Also, it is very unlikely that faculty would look for ways to “innovate themselves out of a job” as one instructor put it to me.

So, if IT support staff are not mandated to look for ways to reduce cost ,and faculty do not see it as being in their interests to do so, is it credible for representatives from the university to suggest that anyone is seriously trying to find ways to reduce the cost of instruction through the use of technology?

Fred M Beshears

Chris Newfield said...

Mr Beshears, thanks for your comment. I for one would love help with using online especially to increase feedback to students about their performance and their gaps in learning - we never had enough staff to do this in the way private colleges do, and this has only gotten worse. On my campus, until recently, instructional technology has been do-it-yourself for the instructor: learn it yourself from IT staff, then do it yourself with occasional input from IT staff. I hope that faculty and staff can still work together to keep instructional tech upgrades in-house--staff and faculty have a common interest here, and it would also benefit our students educationally.

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