Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Report from Little Hoover: Standing in Front of the Online Train

The dominant take away from the Little Hoover Commission Hearing on Higher Education Funding and Online Education is that many stakeholders believe that most problems in California higher ed can be solved through distance education. Presenters argued that online courses will lower the cost of instruction and make it possible to enroll more students and graduate them at a much higher rate. Daphne Koller even argued that large online classes are better than small classes because when you have the students do the grading and the feedback, the quality of the responses goes up and the time for responding goes down. This is the “wisdom of the crowds” argument that is fundamental to the ideology of crowdsourcing.

During the UC online presentation, we learned that the university wants to move quickly to place many new courses online starting next Fall. The goal is to rapidly increase the ability of students on one campus to take a course on another campus. There is also the idea that students can take outside MOOC courses and get credit for them by taking an exam or asking for transfer credit. Once again, the stress was on taking care of the gateway course bottleneck.

As I mentioned in my testimony, if you reduce the course congestion in lower-division courses, then you will run into congestion in the upper-division major courses. In fact, one reason why many students cannot graduate on time is that they are weeded out of popular majors. I also pointed out that a recent study has shown that the students who do the poorest in online classes are new students and under-represented minority students, and these are exactly the students UC, CSU, and community colleges are targeting.

I added in my testimony that the state has reduced the UC budget by $1 billion, and we raised tuition to cover that loss, and we also increased the size of classes and the faculty-to-student ratio. Now the state is saying that our expanded courses are not as good as online courses, and so we have to do more with less by shifting to a questionable mode of instruction. Meanwhile, the first presenter of the day argued that the new normal is that higher education will be squeezed out of state budgets, so we have to ask students to take on more of a burden, while we exploit various federal aid programs and tax breaks.

In response to this new normal, we need to push for free public higher ed and a rededication to instruction as a core mission of higher education. This does not mean that we should move away from research; rather, we have to find a more transparent and robust way to support this needed social and economic function. Unfortunately, the fascination with online education only blinds people from seeing the realities and solutions facing public higher education.