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.

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