On January 8th, I participated in the forum on online education for California at UCLA. First a few ironies: the faculty presenters had to listen to four hours of non-interactive presentations before they could speak and ask questions. In other words, as the “providers” were lecturing us about how online technology allows for true interactive education to occur, they did not leave space for any interaction. Moreover, the high-tech promoters kept on having a hard time getting their PowerPoint slides to work as they criticized traditional institutions for not turning to new technologies to make education “Faster, Cheaper, and Better.” A final irony was that throughout the lectures, I noticed most of the audience, including myself, constantly checking their iPhones. Once again, as the providers were celebrating the role of new technologies in making us more focused and efficient, most of the audience was half-listening and multi-tasking.
For me the major underlying theme was that outside parties want to help make higher ed more efficient and cost-effective by taking apart these institutions. In what they call “debundling,” many of the providers discussed how one person would design a course, another person would present the course, another person would market the course, and none of these people would be involved in research, community service, or shared governance. Furthermore, the emerging business model appears to be centered on re-packaging Great courses from Great professors and selling them to other universities and colleges.
This deconstructing of the traditional institution of higher education helped to shape a possible conflict in my own interventions at the forum. On the one hand, I argued that all of this talk about MOOCs and other forms of online education is a major distraction in relation to the real cost issues facing higher education, like the reduction in state funding, and the increased costs of administration, athletics, amenities, sponsored research, and professional education. On the other hand, I added that the model of education being presented by the online providers destroys the connection between research and teaching, while it also removes universities and colleges from their central role in improving society.
The way to overcome this apparent contradiction is to affirm that we do need a holistic approach to education, but we also have to make the budgets as transparent as possible. For example, by showing how undergraduate courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences often bring in more money in tuition and state funds than they cost, we can help defend these important disciplines. Furthermore, by revealing that many research grants do not pay for the full cost of facilities, staff, and equipment, we can force grant funders to increase their support for overhead. However, if we do not do either of these things, a secret system of cross-subsidization will continue, and this will only hurt these institutions as a whole.
Another major point that I tried to stress when I talked to people at this event was that we should not compare online courses to the worst versions of our traditional courses; instead, we need to define and defend high-quality, in-person classes and hybrid forms of traditional education. In fact, what was so interesting about the forum was that many of the providers would stress that this is all about providing higher quality education, and it has to be faculty driven. When I finally got a chance to speak, I said that I have never been at a faculty meeting where a group of faculty stood up and said, let’s create a new online program and sell courses to other universities. When the providers said this is all about quality and the faculty, I heard, “this is all about reducing costs and making money.”
In a funny coincidence, the day before the forum, a series of articles was published about UC’s own online project. With titles like, “UC spends big to market its online courses — but reaches only one person,” the utter failure of the UC business model is becoming more apparent every day. What I have been told is just as UC started to market its costly online courses for non-UC students, the market was turned upside down by the explosion of free online courses. Now UC has spent $5 million on virtually one student, but we shouldn’t laugh because someone is going to have to pay for this failed experiment, and the bigger question is will UC be able to walk away from the table after it has gambled millions away on its high-tech wager?