September 20, 2014

Online learning in California generates controversy

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© Robert Holmes, CalTour, 2012

Booker, E. (2013) Online education policy draws fire in California Information Week: Education, January 11

This report of a one-day conference at UCLA: Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality,’ resulted in ‘heated critiques about the rationale for the state’s policy push into the area.’

Some of the points raised:

  • the Governor has created a fund for open textbooks and an open digital library for the state’s public post-secondary system (a model being imitated in British Columbia)
  • criticism from faculty associations that the focus on MOOCs doesn’t address the needs of undergraduate students, and that the rush into MOOCs wasn’t being accompanied by research or evaluation of their effectiveness
  • criticisms from the CEO of Straighterline, an online service offering introductory courses, that public universities were monopolies subsidized by taxpayers that were keeping out cheaper commercial providers
  • Daphne Koller of Coursera argued that MOOCs are ushering in a “brand new pedagogy” and provide important keys about effective teaching and educational design by using Google-style rapid testing resulting in daily improvements to the web site
  • the number of full-time-equivalent online students in the state’s community college network has doubled since 2005-2006, and now constitute 11% of all course enrollments.

The conference was sponsored by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the cost of higher education.

Comment

California appears likely to be a key battle ground regarding the role of the private sector and online learning in post-secondary education. Public colleges and universities have seen steep cuts in their funding over recent years and the state’s finances do not look to be any healthier for at least the next two or three years.

There are in fact several strands here that are getting mixed up and perhaps should be considered separately:

  • the commitment of voters in California to a publicly funded post-secondary education system. The current financial difficulties of the state are a consequence of the ‘tax revolt’ by Californians over the last 25 years resulting from  proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California. If you don’t pay taxes, you can’t afford public services. There seems to be a gradual understanding of this, because the governor was able to get some increase in state taxes through proposition 30 that was passed in a state ballot in November.
  • ‘traditional’ for-credit online learning is already well-established in the public post-secondary system in California, with somewhere between 11-15% of all for-credit course enrollments now being online. This ‘natural’ growth is likely to continue, with or without the influence of MOOCs, although the publicity around MOOCs may (or may not) facilitate this
  • MOOCs may have some relevance for for-credit programming, but that is not their current purpose. There is still a great deal of work to be done before they come close to being an adequate substitute for current for-credit online courses, and indeed that may turn out to be the least valuable road for MOOCs to travel. Whatever road they do follow, they will need to demonstrate their effectiveness through independent evaluation of what students actually learn
  • effective teaching is not the same as effective advertising, so assuming that Google-style ad testing will result in educational breakthroughs is just dreaming. To sort out the signal from the noise in analyzing big data, you need hypotheses or theories, so you know what kind of data to collect, and how to interpret it when it is collected. The theories for learning are almost certainly different than the theories for selling or marketing. It’s about time Coursera recognized that we do know a good deal about what leads to effective online learning, and this has not been applied to most Coursera MOOCs to date. The sooner this is done, the more effective they are likely to be, and you don’t needs tons of data for this, although it could be helpful once these approaches are applied, to further refine our knowledge in this area
  • despite all this, the costs of post-secondary education in the USA in particular, and many other OECD countries, including Canada, are too high and as a result are becoming an increasing barrier to access, so we do need more experimentation, innovation, research and evaluation. However this needs to be more thoughtful than just jumping off a cliff and hoping there’s deep water underneath
  • lastly, commercial providers can supply online learning offerings more cheaply than public organizations, because the public organizations are not just offering rote learning, but at least aiming for the development of critical thinking skills, originality, communications skills, networking, and above all the generation of new knowledge and innovation which is partly cross-subsidized by funds coming in for teaching (whether that should be the case is another matter). In other words, commercial online providers go for the low-hanging fruit, and leave the public sector to pick up the rest. As in the stock market, the commercial providers want to take the profits, and leave the losses to the taxpayer.

California is going to be one of the major focal points for these issues to be played out. It is one of the biggest public post-secondary systems in the USA, and it will be a marker for the rest of the country in this struggle, which reflects perhaps the most important ideological issues in education for many years.  However, public thinking, especially in the USA, is often grossly over-simplified into two opposing positions. Unfortunately – or fortunately, I’m not sure which – online learning is caught right in the middle. Online learning in fact can be a weapon used by either side. We should be looking for a third road, where online learning helps public institutions to become more cost-effective, through fundamental changes that at the same time strengthen the good parts of the public system: equitable access, quality teaching, new knowledge production, and intellectual freedom.

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