Tuesday, May 28, 2013

State and Local Online Initiatives Converge

There is new California Senate budget language for online education funding for the UC system:  “Of the funds appropriated in Schedule (1), $10,000,000 is provided to increase the number of courses available to undergraduate students enrolled at the University of California (UC) through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly, and are prerequisites for many different degrees. Priority will be given to developing courses that can serve greater numbers of students while providing equal or better learning experiences. The university shall ensure that the courses selected for this purpose are articulated across all UC campuses offering undergraduate degree programs and shall additionally ensure that students enrolling and successfully completing these courses are granted degree applicable cross-campus transfer credit. The university will shall use these funds to enable make these courses to be available to all university undergraduate students systemwide, regardless of the campus where they are enrolled. The university should shall charge UC-matriculated students the same tuition for these courses that it charges them for regular academic year state-subsidized courses. Prior to the expenditures of these funds, the University shall submit a detailed expenditure plan for approval by the Department of Finance. The Director of Finance shall provide notification in writing of any approval granted under this section, not less than 30 days prior to the effective date of that approval, to the chairperson of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, or not later than whatever lesser amount of time prior to that effective date the Chairperson of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, or his or her designee, may in each instance determine. By March 1, 2014, the University shall submit a report detailing the use of these funds and any outcomes that may be attributed to their use. The report shall include the university’s proposal for use of these funds in 2014-15.”

This new language aligns with UC’s new online Initiative (ILTI), except it requires the new online courses to be applicable for degree transfer credit at all UC campuses.  While the UC proposal only requires new courses to be transferable at two campuses, the state wants these classes to be system-wide.  Since ILTI is reliant on the governor’s funding, it appears that the initial call for proposals will have to be rethought, and this brings up the very difficult problem of system-wide courses. One unresolved issue is whether any of these transferable courses will give major or GE credit and who will decide on this issue. 

Complicating matters is the continuing battle over SB520.  The bill is being amended again, and this time it will be a strictly voluntary incentive grant system.  In other words, similar to ILTI, it will ask faculty to develop online courses, but they need to be available for transfer credit in all three segments.  Like the governor’s proposal, SB520 could represent a backdoor elimination of shared governance, campus autonomy, and the power of individual faculty senates and departments to accept or reject outside courses.   

Standing back, we see how the governor’s budget proposal, SB520, and the UC’s own online program are converging.  While UC thinks that it can control the process and make sure that each campus has control over its curriculum, the state is pushing for a radical restructuring of the system. Moreover, since no one has figured out how revenue will be shared between the campuses and who will pay for a student on one campus to take a course on another campus, this top-down imposition of shared online courses may cause major havoc in California’s higher education segments.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Graduation Rates and the Bottleneck Myth

One of the main questions presented at the last UC regents meeting was why do only 60% of UC students graduate in four years. While President Yudof celebrated this rate, Governor Brown was not very pleased, and both men indicated that online education may be the solution to the problem. However, what should be clear is that the university needs to do a comprehensive study to determine the main causes for the different graduation rates on the various campuses.

In my interviews with students, I have found that the biggest reasons for a delay in graduation is that students switch majors, they fail out of courses, they cannot get required courses, they do not qualify for their intended majors, they have to work to pay for their living expenses, they do not think there are any jobs for them after graduation, they pursue double majors, they do not receive adequate advising, they have medical problems and personal issues. Students also complain about the number of requirements for certain majors and their dislike of large lecture classes. A comprehensive survey of the UC system would help to determine what is really happening on a local level.

Another important aspect of this problem is the question of how much money individual campuses dedicate to undergraduate instruction. UCOP has reported on the increase in classes and the decrease in faculty relative to the number of students, but it is still unclear what has caused these changes. After all, during the last five years, while the state did reduce the UC budget by $1 billion, total tuition revenue went up by over $1.2 billion. It would seem that as students pay more for their education, they would get more support and smaller classes instead of less support and larger classes, but as this blog has stressed, the university continues to use undergraduate funds to subsidize many other university functions.

Since President Yudof claims that tuition increases have only covered 38% of state reductions, he has opened the door for the state to argue that tuition can be frozen for the next four years. Once again manipulated budget numbers are coming back to bite the UC. If the UC had instead stated the truth that tuition dollars have outpaced state reductions, it would have been much harder for the governor and the legislature to simply tell the UC to stop raising tuition. While I am not calling for a tuition increase, I am arguing that false and misleading budgetary numbers always seem to backfire on the UC.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The May Revise and Online Chaos

Governor Brown’s May revision of the state budget for the University of California makes very few changes. One difference from the January budget is the removal of a cap on how many units students can take and still receive financial aid (Cal Grants). Another change deals with the introduction of accountability measures for UC funding. While the governor’s Department of Finance has released an outline of the accountability measures, the May Revise pulls them pack and states that the governor will work with the legislature to develop the guidelines. The backstory is that during a legislative hearing on higher education, it became clear that there were many problems with the governor’s multi-year proposal to tie funding to a 10% increase in graduation rates for UC and CSU. One major problem is that the CSU 4-year graduation rate is 16%, and the UC 4-year rate is 60%, so the UC would have to increase by 6% and the CSU by 1.6%. Also the legislative analyst pointed out that most multi-year deals between the state and the UC have been broken, and therefore, it is not a good idea to make long-term funding commitments. The LAO also argued that it might be a good idea to first study why people do not graduate in a timely fashion before you start legislating accountability measures.

The question of timely graduation is obviously a major focus of the administration, and that is one reason why the governor and the legislature want to see if online education will move students through the systems in a quicker fashion. While there is no mention of online education in the May Revise, we can assume the governor still intends to earmark $10 million of the UC budget for distance education; however, we still do not know how the governor’s funding for online education relates to Steinberg’s and Marty Block’s distance education bills. To make matters even more complicated, the UC now seems to be running several competing online programs of its own.

While the original UC online pilot program appears to be running out of funding, a new initiative, run out of the Office of the President, is calling for a new round of course proposals. Under the heading of ILTI, this call for proposals concentrates on highly-impacted, lower-division cross-campus courses. The desire here is to develop system-wide classes that would help students graduate in a more efficient manner, but there still remains the major problems of how to allow students from one campus to take courses on another campus. Not only are there issues with incompatible registration systems, but the biggest difficulty is how will revenue be shared between the campuses. For example, if many UCSB students take their Biology classes with UC Davis, who pays for the courses and how much do they pay, and what happens if suddenly, no one at UCSB is taking Biology courses, does the UCSB Biology Department layoff teachers? We have been told that a new working group has been assembled to deal with these issues, but it may take several years.

Another complication in the Online scrum is the fact that individual faculty members are signing up with private providers like Coursera to put their courses online. Meanwhile, departments are developing their own online courses, and some summer programs have augmented their online offerings. No one knows how all of these different online ventures relate to each other and how they relate to the governor’s plans and the various bills coming out of the legislature.

Since no one knows how much it really costs to educate a student in the UC system, it is hard to know if online courses will save money or not. In fact, the governor’s January budget did include some budget transparency language to see how much it costs to educate each student, but the UC does not have to report on this until October 2014. It would make sense to hold off on the accountability measures until after we know how much things actually cost and why students do not graduate in a more timely fashion.

Monday, May 6, 2013

MOOC Mania Expands

At the National Education Writers Association conference at Stanford last week, MOOCs were the topic of much speculation and debate. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan affirmed that the jury is still out on this new model of instruction, yet he could see the day when the best Algebra teacher in the country would be teaching high school students from around the country online. While it was good to hear that he does not think technology offers the magic bullet for education, some of his comments about MOOCs were concerning. Moreover, as he stressed that the administration’s higher education focus is on increasing access, affordability, and degree completion, he did not offer any new specifics on this front. I later had the opportunity to question him about the president’s college scorecard web site, and he put me in touch with someone to continue the conversation.

During a panel with Daphne Koller of Coursera, I argued that we need to think about the whole higher education system and how these new technological solutions do not deal with the major issues of funding, costs, quality, and academic labor. Koller insisted that people take MOOCs for many different reasons, and the ones who want to complete courses often attain their goal. In response to my concern that faculty are being motivated to sign away their intellectual property to Cousera or to their home institutions, she replied that the she is an advocate of individual freedom so professors should be able to do what they want. I argued that faculty have to think about how their actions affect other people, and in the context of our union contract, we have a collective agreement that some times limits total individual freedom.

The debate over individual freedom versus collective contacts was highlighted in Thomas Friedman’s presentation. He started off by arguing that companies like Google do not want employees with college degrees; rather, what they want is people who have a proven record of mastering certain skills or competencies. Using the analogy of moving from a defined benefit plan to a 401K plan, Friedman said that everything is going to be individualized, and people will cobble together their own degrees and credentials out of a list of available online courses. In this “total revolution,” professors will have to prove their value in a global market as consumers/students are able to learn “anything” from “anyone” at “any time.” This over-generalized rhetoric tends to dominate Freidman’s work and other high-tech evangelists.

A constant theme of this conference was the notion that higher ed institutions are slow to move, but we are in a period of rapid technological transformation. Meanwhile, digital news media outlets have to quickly report on recent events, and so they are more in synch with high-tech businesses that can make quick decisions, and this puts slow-moving deliberative bodies, like public universities, at a disadvantage. Just as newspapers have been transformed by the “Internet Revolution,” we are being told that traditional universities have to give up their attachment to shared governance, job security, and reasoned debate; in this brave new world of high-tech transformation, liberal and conservative power-brokers have seemed to bought into the same push to trade in all past forms of economic and institutional stability in favor of a jump into an unknown future of radical individualism and the privatization of public functions.