Online degrees in a real world
7/24/2010 San Gabriel Valley Tribune
TWO words best describe the downside of a recent decision by the University of California Board of Regents to develop an Internet-based undergraduate degree program: slippery slope.
No matter how you feel about the undoubtedly rapidly expanding role of technology in higher education, the regents' eventual decision after some fairly in-depth discussion was an odd one at best. That's because everyone backing the exploration of what would be a tremendous increase in the scale of online learning at the nation's greatest public university acknowledges how fraught with educational dangers such a move could ultimately be.
The obtaining of a college degree, especially in North America, is almost as much of a coming-of-age period in a young person's life as it is an education in the sense of book-learning.
Er, computer-screen learning, perhaps.
Calculus and literature and economics are important. It is possible to learn something about them, especially in their early stages, through the impersonal, relatively rote process that a one-size-fits-all computer program can provide. We realize that such programs these days are malleable, capable of recognizing subtleties in an individual's responses, even to the point of cyber-genius. That does not mean they could ever be an equal substitute for a professor in a seminar room.
We certainly realize that professor and that room are expensive, as is all the support and double lattes required to get 15 (or 150) adolescents onto a real campus and into a physical classroom at 9 o'clock on a Monday morning.
But there is something about the interaction of real people in a real place that it will forever be impossible to recreate through virtual realities. If that brands us as Luddites on this issue, so be it. Media, as is said, distorts. A dozen students spread around the globe staring into screens running an interactive Skype connection trained on their prof at a white board, remarkable as that technology is, is still a pale excuse for the sights and sounds, the visual cues, the body language, the subtleties, supplied when students sit around the same table.
Boalt Hall - UC Berkeley's law school - Dean Christopher Edley took on the task of being faculty advocate for a plan to be the first eminent university to develop both completely online courses and, down the road, fully accredited degrees earned without much time spent on a campus.
Like any well-trained legal advocate, Edley made a thumpingly thorough case for the view that mere classroom learning is too old school for words - and that the university can't afford to be left behind technologically. There's also the economic argument - and the undeniable fact that UC classrooms these days are rarefied places.
"We can't treat the excellence of (UC) like a precious little box ... that we protect and we polish and it's as big as it is and whoever can get in it, boy are they lucky," he told the regents. "If all we do in the years ahead is take that little jewel box and put it on a higher and higher and higher shelf, then I think we are betraying our mission."
He said that if California could truly make its university education more available through online learning, "We will have the world's longest intellectual smorgasbord from which to feast."
But a college education is not just the online equivalent of listening to some Great Books seminar on tape. If someone is hankering for extracurricular learning, she or he can already check out The Feynman Lectures on Physics or their literary or social-science equals from the public library.
A university education is also about the tears and the beers, the intramural basketball teams, the dorm-room bull sessions, the library all-nighters, the cute boy or girl in the back row. Mere knowledge is worthless without the human factor for which there is no substitute in a microchip - even a mightily interactive one. We urge the University of California Board of Regents to go very slowly in moving toward accrediting an online undergraduate degree.
Online education? Beware of glitches
Published Sunday, Jul. 25, 2010 Sacramento Bee
It's hardly surprising that, in an era of diminished state support, California's university leaders are trying to find new ways to work around budget-related enrollment restrictions.
Those restrictions have prevented qualified high school students from attending a UC campus, and reduced access to courses for those who do get admitted.
Yet as the UC Board of Regents ventures more deeply into the world of distance learning – online programs and degrees – they need to be careful to put the needs of Californians first and not undermine UC's reputation for quality.
At their July 14 meeting, the regents launched an "Undergraduate Online Instruction Pilot Project" with two parts – one for UC-enrolled students and one for "fully distant" students.
The potential for tapping fee-paying students far from California – the "Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur" dream – captured the headlines and the controversy. Based on the experience of others, there is good reason to be skeptical of a model where individuals never need set foot on a UC campus to get a bachelor's degree.
But discussion of the "fully distant" market ought not to mask the real impact of the online project, which will be on California students. That online shift deserves more in-depth debate.
The heart of the project turns to online courses (typically no face-to-face meetings) for California students to meet their introductory and lower-division course requirements.
These are courses that:
• Have the heaviest enrollments on UC campuses;
• Are most in demand by community college students planning to transfer;
• Are the most oversubscribed;
• And are the ones the faculty are less eager to teach.
So the pilot project proposes to create 25 to 40 online options for high-demand lower division and foundation courses: writing and composition, basic math, calculus, economics, statistics, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, physiology, communications, history, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, American studies, anthropology, business.
This covers a big chunk of the undergraduate experience. Students and parents need to pay attention to this shift and weigh in.
Certainly online courses have advantages for students faced with the choice of a 300-seat lecture class or being shut out of a course. They have advantages, too, for students with work or family obligations.
But these courses should not simply be treated as "requirements to get out of the way." They are the principal gateway courses for students exploring a major.
Equally important, for non- majors, they may be the only courses students take in science or politics, for example, which should give them enough to be informed citizens. These need to be strong, interesting courses.
Nor should issues of student accountability be overlooked. How do you know that a student, and not someone else, is actually taking the exam?
Based on experience elsewhere, offering quality online courses may not be a cost-saver. Good online courses are time-intensive.
A few news stories from Inside Higher Education provide cautionary tales on this front.
One September 2009 story describes how the University of Illinois Global Campus "crashed and burned." This attempt to attract a global audience was "going to be a cash cow." Instead, "it's kaput."
Attempting to put up a high-quality program against dozens of low-cost, for-profit online operations proved more difficult than advocates thought. The university invested millions and attracted only a few hundred students.
Another story, featuring the University of Texas, is headlined, "Texas Kills Its Telecampus" (April 9). Money, the story indicated, "played a role in the TeleCampus's hastened demise." This experiment depended on a large annual subsidy from the UT system, plus fees from the campuses.
The University of Massachusetts campus-based online initiative, UMassOnline, has seen better success. It hasn't set unrealistic goals for cost savings. "Not all success is financial" is the motto.
Distance learning has a long tradition in this country and can be an avenue for achieving democratic ideals of access. But to maintain UC standards of quality and a California-first priority, it has to be done right.
That means it is unlikely to be a cash cow.
UPDATE: Article quotes various faculty and others on the online degree concept:
UPDATE: Op ed responding to Sacramento Bee editorial: