Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Zombie Bill: SB520 Passes out of the Senate

Senator Steinberg’s SB520 passed out of the senate by a 28-0 vote - with 11 Democrats deciding not to vote.  While many legislators clearly do not like the content of the bill, no one wants to kill the pet project of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Meanwhile, the bill has been modified several times, but even in its emptied-out form, it still seeks to incentivize faculty and campuses to create courses that can be shared between all segments of higher education, and it leaves the door open for private-public partnerships.


In the brief debate (go to the 3:06:00 mark) over the bill, one can hear all of the standard rhetorical moves that dominate the current conversation regarding high-tech solutions to various social problems.  Senator Steinberg begins his defense of the SB520 by stressing that online education is not a magic bullet that will solve all of the problems caused by years of state budget cuts to higher education; however, he quickly changes direction when he quotes two newspaper articles touting Coursera’s recent deal with several state higher education systems.  In pointing to this latest development, he stresses that California cannot be left behind in this new race to improve access and affordability through distance education.
      
This notion that we cannot be left behind in this high-tech race is a reoccurring theme heard throughout the public and political debate.  The idea here is that even if the costs and effects of digital education are still unknown, we must do it because others are doing it.  According to this group psychology, we must follow the crowd and ignore our own doubts and questions.  For instance, even though some professors feel that this move to online courses will reduce the number of faculty positions, Steinberg assures the faculty that this is not the intention of the bill, yet, it is important to point out that in the context of social psychology, individual intentions do not matter.  In fact, one of the first senators to speak in support of the bill, Wyland, intoned that we must realize that there is not going to be money to hire more professors, and so the only way to improve access is to do it online.

From Wyland’s Republican perspective, the downsizing of faculty is a given, and all public functions will have to do more with less.  This fatalistic logic is inherent to the promoters of high-tech solutions:  from their perspective, resistance is futile, and we cannot stop the “natural” progress of technological and economic change.  Of course, Wyland and the other Republicans who all voted with Steinberg show the bipartisan nature of this high-tech rhetoric: the Republican desire to shrink big government and privatize public institutions has joined hands with the Democratic need to be associated with progress and private-public joint ventures.

The Democrats and Republicans are also able to join together because they both embrace the false rhetoric of student-centered digital education.  While it is clear why the libertarian Right would like to turn higher education into a private affair pursued by private individuals preferably in the privacy of their own homes, it is less clear why the Democrats have taken the libertarian student-centered bait. However, Senator’s Torrez’s remarks shed some light on the issue. She argues that the only way she was able to graduate and get her degree from the national labor college was due to the fact that she could take all of her classes online.  The first thing to point out here is that the “liberal” national labor college has recently sold off its campus and is now entirely online. Thus, in the great tradition of Clintonian triangulation, a school dedicated to labor issues promotes a labor-destroying system; meanwhile students are celebrated as their futures are de-funded.

Whether it is intentional or not, the real driving force behind online education is the further dismantling of the teaching profession and the marketization of public institutions.       
 

29 comments:

  1. I agreed whole-heartedly that massive online courses aim to dismantle the teaching profession, but as someone who has taught fully online courses of the un-massive persuasion for 10+ years at the University of Oklahoma, I feel very well "mantled" as it were - I love my job, the students love the courses, and I will gladly put my classes toe-to-toe with any other Gen. Ed. courses at my school or anywhere else for a quality comparison (course materials all open at http://mythfolklore.net). I could never teach these highly interactive, writing-intensive courses within the confines of a traditional classroom. So, while I am a fan of your blog, I am sad to see you identify online education in general as the enemy, rather than focusing on poor quality classes of any kind (online or in person) offered by profit-making corporations, especially the massive online courses whose advent clearly prompted this legislation.

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