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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Forum on Online

This morning I found myself on KQED's Forum with Michael Krassny program to discuss online education with San Jose State President Mo Qayoumi, Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, and (unfortunately too briefly) Student Regent Jonathan Stein.   You can find the audio here.  Although a variety of topics came up let me point to just a few of the points that became clear over the course of the hour.

First, the discourse around education online remains hopelessly muddled.   As Bob Samuels just pointed out the official line coming from the Regents, the Governor, and the MOOC-makers is that higher education has been frozen in a glacier for decades only now being thawed in the brilliant sunlight of Coursera, Udacity, and EDx.  In this framing, faculty are cast as luddites opposed to the inevitable progress of humanity.  Ironically, the only person who dissented from this in any significant way was Chris Edley who, in trying to get his desire for a virtual campus back on the table, conceded that there have been ongoing experiments on all the campuses to include digital tools and to restructure specific courses when online or digital will enrich the course experience.  The Governor's framing of online depends on a serious misreading of history. 

But today's discussion revealed an even deeper level of confusion.  One of the interesting things about today's program was that it sought to combine two extremely different problem situations: a discussion of the recent contract between SJSU and Udacity to create experimental courses designed to help CSU and high school students who need remedial teaching to thrive in college and a discussion of the direction that UCOP and the Regents want to take in expanding online courses at UC.   But while the conversation did point to several points of agreement (the continuing importance of the residential experience for college; the importance of using online resources to provide things that are different from what goes on in face to face teaching; the concern to make certain that education was not debased in the pursuit of cost savings; worries about maintaining the teaching function) what is clear is that online education is being treated as a solution to a wide range of problems without actually asking if it was really the most appropriate solution or seriously considering what other solutions were possible.

Sebastian Thrun and President Qayoumi were quite clear that they were conducting an inquiry with outside evaluation to address a specific problem.  And it does seem to be a fascinating experiment.  But as one caller pointed out, rather than turning to private providers to provide remedial education shouldn't the state  engagie with K-12 teachers to ensure that students are provided the knowledge and tools they need.  And while this experiment has gained a great deal of publicity (and one assumes will enable Udacity to monetize its program) there seems to be an unquestioned assumption that if this specific experiment works it demonstrates the wider applicability of this sort of partnership throughout higher ed.  I was reminded of the old saying that if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.

This enthusiasm merges into a second point:  it has become even clearer over the past few days that technology is being seen as a replacement for actual political debate and social investment. Although Krassny seemed quite interested when I pointed out the actual funding history of Higher Ed in California and the Governor's efforts to naturalize political decisions that he and his immediate predecessors had made, none of the other guests engaged the question.  In this silence, I could hear echoes of yesterday's Regents meeting.

The mantra of innovation and online courses as a solution for the problems facing students (student debt, time to degree, decline in face to face teaching, issues of access) allows the political and educational establishment (and the online start-ups) to avoid the question of social priorities.   Insofar as online is not being designed to replace face to face instruction but to enrich it (in which case it is unlikely to provide cost savings) then it is being used to paper over a political decision to de-emphasize the training of mass creativity so and instead expand mass incarceration and increase inequality. 

But before Jerry presses everyone to love his iPhone or Regent Pattiz convinces us to think of courses as Mp3 downloads it is important to insist that online planning be linked far more carefully to specific aims and goals.  What specific tasks are online efforts trying to accomplish? Which specific problems do they aim to solve?  How will online courses factor into larger questions of academic programs for both undergraduate and graduate students?  And what alternatives are being pushed aside in the rush to online?   Faculty have shown that you can enrich education with properly thought through digital tools and the for-profits have cut educational costs (if not prices) if you are willing to sacrifice quality.  But here is the question:  where is the evidence that you can do both at once?   


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