UC, CSU profs don’t grasp threat they face from online ed

Jan. 16, 2013

By Chris Reed

onlineed4Will 2013 be the year that unionized faculty members at UC, CSU and the state’s community colleges finally figure out the threat that online education poses to their futures? If it is not this year, it is coming sometime soon. The same dynamics that have killed Borders, Tower Records and travel agencies, made newspapers far less lucrative and shaken up dozens of industries — easy, free/cheap online access to content and information — threaten bricks-and-mortar higher education.

“Look at the music industry. It’s been completely overturned by the Internet. My vision of the world is that everywhere will be like the music industry, but we’ve only seen it in a few places so far. Journalism is in the midst of the battle. And higher education is probably next,” is how George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, an online education visionary, puts it.

Yes, K-12 is likely to live on in its present form because of the role schools play in the socialization process. Yes, Ivy League universities will continue to serve in their role as de facto gatekeepers for entry into Wall Street and high finance. But in Silicon Valley, the value that is placed on traditional credentials in most of the U.S. isn’t nearly as consistently strong. It is understood that learning can happen lots of ways, and hardly just in a formal classroom. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg? All college dropouts. This is not lost on the rest of California’s elites.

Jerry Brown on the bandwagon

Now more and more online education is free, and the power of education apps on iPads and other devices is becoming more obvious, and people have realized how much great educational content there is on YouTube. At the very least, we seem sure to move toward a model in which online learning is a big part of traditional education because of its efficiency and low cost.

And guess who agrees this is a great idea?

“Quoting poet Robert Frost on the benefits of innovative thinking, Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday that three unusual math classes offered this spring at San Jose State University hold out hope for resolving one of California’s most troublesome problems: overcrowded classes.

“‘Online is part of the solution,’ Brown told a roomful of educators at San Jose State before quoting from a 1939 essay in which Frost said, ‘Originality and initiative are what I ask for my country.’

“Although online courses have been part of college curricula for years, the three new ones – at $150 each — suggest a new and possibly cheaper direction for students, California State University and Silicon Valley.”

But when will unions figure out that convenient and inexpensive inevitably eventually means fewer well-paying jobs? When will unions figure out that the U.S. student-loan debacle also feeds the crisis atmosphere around the old bricks-and-mortar norm?

For reasons I can’t comprehend, none of this has sunk in. The UC faculty associations, the CSU faculty union and the California Community Colleges faculty union don’t seem to grasp that if good and improving higher education is free or dirt-cheap online, if a conventional degree loses its gatekeeper status in many jobs, and if huge student loan defaults keep making headlines, the status quo could wither quickly.

Cowen and many other educators, economists, philanthropists and futurists have been writing about online education for years, especially its disruptive possibilities. By contrast, read the coverage of Jerry Brown’s push to have San Jose State and Udacity team up in offering online courses on the CSU faculty union website. It suggests that this could somehow be a good thing for faculty:

“CFA President Lil Taiz agrees on the importance of asking questions about student success:

“She said, ‘It’s good the CSU is actually testing out these methods and starting on a small scale. We must find out which online tools work well (or not), for what kinds of students, and for what kinds of subject matter. There is a lot to unpack in the pedagogy.’

“CFA and CSU managers have met on how the terms of work in the first semester of the pilot accord with the faculty contract.

“’You can’t have quality learning conditions for students—online or in a classroom—without professional working conditions for the faculty. Our contract is an important piece of making sure we have fairness, equity, and quality in all aspects of CSU teaching.’”

Clueless and oblivious in the faculty lounge

Wow. The lessons of recent history don’t appear to have sunk in at all with UC, CSU and CCC faculty if profs think online education’s arrival and increasing acceptance bodes well for them.

When Jerry Brown talks about the need for UC, CSU and CCC to be more efficient, he may not be talking only about pushing students to graduate in as little time as possible and not dawdle on campus. He may actually want them to become more efficient in the way other information businesses have become efficient — by taking full advantage of technology.

When will we see this trigger the modern equivalent of a Luddite reaction?

Soon, I suspect. When the liberal governor of California’s enthusiasm for online learning sinks in, the Lil Taizes of the Golden State will have no choice but to think about its long-term implications.


Write a comment
  1. Eric
    Eric 16 January, 2013, 09:10

    As a parent, I’m glad that there will be more supply to take the wind out of the demand-driven cost inflation trend.

    As a hiring manager, I frankly wouldn’t give much credibility to a fully online degree, though. I have already seen other state schools “launder” low-tier public school offerings as more prestigious state school degrees. It’s like CSU offering UC degrees without any more affiliation than being the same state. That’s how I characterize the “IUPUI” system in IN, anyway, and it doesn’t impress me on a resume. There is some potential for fully online education to be branded with UC imprimatur, but I doubt I’m the only one to not trust the outcome.

    More likely, though, online ed will emphasize core prerequisite courses in the short term. These are the ones the profs don’t want to teach anyway, and the new profs get stuck with. The “fun” upper level courses won’t go online soon if at all. Online might be a good way to “educate” non-majors in the first 2 years of college (e.g., chemistry 101, etc.). Packaged as such, I can see profs going along with this for a long time without complaints. If anything, it might even make their current club more exclusive, which they do love. Anyway, they prefer to focus on their research, and federal grants still make that lucrative for large universities, and big earning profs may only need to teach one course a semester as is.

    Reply this comment
  2. econprof
    econprof 16 January, 2013, 18:41

    Comfortably tenured professors may not want to admit it, but online courses can offer a superior educational experience compared to the giant classes using the old-fashioned lecture approach. Online lets the student hear the world’s best professors, permits them to review their weak areas, allows better give-and-take between students and teacher, and with proper feedback mechanisms, can tell the teacher what topics they need to explain better. At the end of the class, a properly designed and monitored test can prove proficiency, and a certificate attesting mastery of the subject can be part of one’s resume. Plenty of employers rightly no longer trust “college graduates” and instead yearn for better measures of accomplishment.
    Voila…better education, vastly lower cost.

    Reply this comment
  3. Hondo
    Hondo 17 January, 2013, 08:20

    I say, shut down the campuses, go to Khan Academy.com and just take the tests to graduate. Everything free but for the few classes that need labs. Save billions on pensions and labor costs, just fire all the teachers and hire test administrators. Free text books online and save the trees. No more going to the free kill zones that are public schools. Save the planet because we don’t drive cars or take the buses to school and spend fossil fuels to heat and cool all the classes. Less traffic jams and accidents and traffic deaths.
    This is Al Gores dream but he opposes it. As does every liberal green teacher.
    Someone tell me whats wrong with this picture.

    Reply this comment

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