Online Education Policy Draws Fire In California

Higher education representatives and online education providers tussle over the impact of online, computer-mediated instruction on college students, faculty and budgets.
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A day-long conference at UCLA Tuesday on the impact of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online, computer-mediated instruction on higher education in California, included heated critiques about the rationale for the state's policy push into the area. The exchange, between third-party MOOC vendors and representatives of California's massive secondary education system, came during a panel discussion.

The conference, "Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality," was sponsored by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the cost of higher education. The event brought together vendors of online instruction like Coursera and Udacity, California policy makers, secondary education faculty and students.

Recently, California has made the case that open source and network-based education can transform California's massive public education system, while reducing costs in the cash-strapped state.

Last year, for instance, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills, one creating a fund to create 50 open source digital textbooks and another establish an Open Source Library to host the books. The bills are deemed important because of the sheer size of the state's university network. The legislation encompasses the University of California (UC) and the California Community College system, as well as California State University (CSU), the largest system of higher education in the country.

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"No way do I believe this is faculty-driven," said Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), the union of faculty and librarians working throughout the University of California and representing more than 3,000 academic employees on UC's 10 campuses.

Samuels went on to challenge the notion that MOOCs would address cost issues in California's higher education system, which he declared weren't around undergraduate classes. "You have to look at research, administration, staffing, athletics," he said, adding: "I'm wondering why we're pouring money into this."

Similarly, Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents 23,000 educators in the California State University system, worried along with some other speakers that the rush to adopt MOOCs was happening without careful research into its impact -- something academics are suited to do.

"We owe it to the students, because a whole generation will be harmed if we don't," Taiz said.

Even some self-described "true believers" in MOOCs expressed concerns about larger public policy implications of online instruction.

Declaring he was "uncomfortable with the overall subtext of this discussion," Phillip Regier, executive vice provost and dean of ASU Online and Extended Campus at Arizona State University, said: "We have to be very careful about what education is, what an educated individual is in this country."

But others at the conference said competition for students would only increase in the future as innovative commercial enterprises offer instruction that often undercuts traditional college pricing.

College and university business models today require "keeping other providers out," declared Burck Smith, CEO at Straighterline, an online service offering introductory courses. Straighterline has direct relationships with about 30 colleges and another 300 colleges accept its credits, Smith said. While Straighterline is not accredited, its subscription-based model makes it much more affordable for students, who pay only for the content they consume, Smith said.

Smith was adamant that current regulations regarding which institutions can confer degrees on students and what he called the "massive taxpayer subsidies that maintain this system" need to be addressed.

Daphne Koller, a founder of Coursera, a leading provider of free online courses in the United States with 30-plus university partners, said her platform and others do more than simply scale instruction to larger student populations or reduce the cost per student with things like automatic grading.

These systems, she said, are ushering in a "brand new pedagogy" and provide important keys about effective teaching and educational design.

"We can now do the kind of rapid evolution in education" that is common at companies like Google, which "A/B test" their ad positions and user interface elements for effectiveness. "These websites evolve in a matter of days or weeks rather than years," Koller said.

Earlier in the day, Koller shared that when she "flipped" her own Stanford University courses five years ago, making classroom instruction "entirely optional," her in-person student attendance actually doubled. "[Students] saw a benefit to interacting with me and their peers," she said.

On one topic there was no debate at the UCLA event. That was the rapid expansion of the online student population in California.

In the 2005-06 academic year, there were 56,000 full-time-equivalent online students in the state's community college network, or 5% of all full-time students, said Dr. Andreea M. Serban, interim vice chancellor of education services at Coast Community College District. By the 2011-12 academic year, that number had grown to almost 114,000, nearly 11% of all students.

Reforming California's education system "is a question of when, not if," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a UC Regent and CSU Trustee. Considering the future, Newsom spoke about his daughter, a toddler. She is a "digital native," he said. "She knows no other way."

The UCLA event was live-streamed by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, although the feed was delayed at the start. Given the subject at hand, the irony of this technical glitch wasn't lost on viewers in the associated online chat room. Even more surprising was the fact that the speakers' slide presentations, some of which didn't work properly, weren't viewable by the Internet-connected audience.

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