Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Rare Victory for Public Higher Education in California

Online education.  It was supposed to be the future.  And it suddenly had the support of California’s governor, Jerry Brown, who never supports anything unless he can be sure it’s popular with the people who count.  Outsourcing to companies like Udacity and Coursera, rather than reinvestment in California’s institutions of higher education, was going to be the silver bullet, the answer to decades of neglect when not outright hostility from without by the state, and years of sabotage from within by market-minded administrators.

So confident was Brown that he tried to force a deal on UC’s leadership whereby in exchange for increased funding thanks to November’s Prop 30 victory, UC would have to pledge to devote significant time and resources to introducing online coursework.  Given their efforts to privatise UC piece by piece, and some of their members’ investments in the for-profit education sector, it might have been supposed that the Regents would have leapt at such an offer, but jealous of their policy prerogatives and under pressure from the campuses, they rejected the deal.

Nonetheless, Brown fired a shot across their bows when he claimed to have an “understanding” with administrators that they would nonetheless pursue what had become his pet panacea (and boy, he’s got a whole kennel full of them!).

The proof in the pudding was supposed to be found in the classrooms at San Jose State University, where edX had partnered with the administration to offer classes jointly with San Jose State faculty while Udacity ran online courses on campus.  This kind of grand experiment, which Udacity CEO told lawmakers and educators could “change the life of Californians”, was designed to prove that departments full of tenured faculty, graduate student employees, classrooms, and in fact entire University communities, were superficial, and not cost-effective in an era where austerity is supposedly the newest unproven necessity.

Unsurprisingly, San Jose State faculty did not take this assault lying down, and pointed out in a letter that “there is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves”, whereas “the move to [Massive Open Online Courses] comes at a great peril to our university”.  Faculty rightly questioned the quality of a course which functions in absence of engagement, without the ability to account for classroom diversity and student experience, and which is based on uniformity of content and instruction across many universities. 

They were joined in their criticism of what amounted to back-door privatisation by University of California faculty, with James Vernon, incoming Berkeley Faculty Association co-chair leading the way in arguing that MOOCs would quickly turn into “an excuse to not hire real faculty”. 

Writing in the Guardian, Vernon warned British universities that if MOOCs were embraced by the University of California, already-beleaguered British universities might be forced to follow suit in the name of cost-cutting.  Ridiculing the “savings” promised by MOOCs, Vernon noted that “UCOnline, set up with a $7million loan in 2011, has spectacularly failed to pay for itself, let alone generate income”.  Rather, it would seem, the introduction of online education is designed to subsidise the for-profit education sector, which preys on students and public universities alike. 

Suddenly, in July, MOOCs are on the rocks.  Vernon pointed out three months ago that there is already evidence “in Washington and Virginia...that underachieving, minority and disadvantaged students fared particularly badly when they took online classes”. 

Now the industry’s own carefully-designed experiment at San Jose State, implemented with the support of an enthusiastic administration but without the consent of the University’s faculty, is being called into question.  SJSU announced that it would “‘pause’ its work with Udacity”, with Provost Ellen Junn citing “disappointing student performance” as the reason for breaking off what once promised to be a passionate love affair between university administrators and education profiteers. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, “preliminary findings from the spring semester suggest students in the online Udacity courses, which were developed jointly with San Jose State faculty, do not fare as well as students who attend normal classes”, with the vice-president of the university’s Faculty Associating remarking caustically that “It’s wise to re-evaluate and pursue something based on the evidence rather than the advertisement”. 

The blended course, which required participation from SJSU faculty, worked better than the purely online course, and such courses are still taught entirely by SJSU faculty, with edX material playing a subsidiary role.  I’ve spoken to faculty doing work in pedagogy within their fields who are sympathetic to online courses in principle.  They say that it’s common knowledge that students participate, stay up to speed, and complete online courses at abysmally low rates, and that it is silly to consider them an answer to the range of challenges facing higher education at public universities across the country. 

It is rare these days to be able to describe a victory for public higher education in California...the Governor has been joined by Democratic leadership in declaring an era of austerity; there is no sign of tuition relief for students at UC and Cal State; there is little indication of serious, sustained public reinvestment in the state’s Master Plan; and UC just used a hiring process that would be the envy of the KGB for its lack of transparency to appoint its new system wide President.

But I am encouraged by fact that San Jose State chose to step back from the brink, and acknowledge the fact that the “old fashioned” idea of a University as a community—a community in which faculty, staff, and students work together as a team of community members invested in a space and an enterprise rather than flapping aimlessly like so many birds-of-passage—might have some merit in it. 

Managing university systems like UC and Cal State is not simple.  UC has ten campuses, assorted national labs, and medical schools, and is home to nearly a quarter million students and over 200,000 faculty and staff.  Cal State operates across 23 campuses and provides a home for nearly half a million students and over 40,000 faculty and staff. 

But what would we expect?  It’s a human enterprise, and people are complicated creatures.  As individuals, we have complex needs, and as society, we require complicated structures to address those needs in a manageable, serious, successful, and humane manner.

Would it be easier to ask those hundreds of thousands of students to stay home and “attend” university on their laptops?  Sure.  But as SJSU’s experience suggests, “ease” doesn’t translate into “success”.  And moreover, those students would miss out on something special that comes from being a part of an institution and a community devoted to learning and committed to the public good.  And California—a famously complicated community—would be much the poorer for failing to support such institutions, and the students and public which they serve. 

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