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The Future of Online Learning at UC

by Sharon Farmer
History, UC Santa Barbara
[via Remaking the University by Chris Newfield on 7/6/10]

At its April, 2010 meeting, the Systemwide Academic Council of the UC Faculty Senate endorsed a revised version of a pilot project on online learning that had been brought forward by the UC Office of the President and endorsed by the Faculty Senate’s University Committee on Educational Policy. In its April endorsement, the Academic Council emphasized that it would not support the use of existing university funds to develop the pilot, and that the purpose of the pilot program was to endeavor to find out how, under what circumstances, and if, quality online learning could fit the education goals and mission of the University of California.

In the latest round of recommendations from the UC Commission on the Future, a set of “Expanded Recommendations,” which appears to have been written not by the working groups of the commission, but by the Office of the President itself, includes two recommendations (recommendations 6 and 7) concerning online learning. The authors of these two proposals attempt to draw legitimacy for their recommendations from the Academic Council’s April endorsement for the pilot project, but the language of these 2 recommendations betrays a set of goals that are fundamentally at odds with the spirit of the Academic Council’s endorsement and with the educational mission of the University of California.

The recommendations speak of funding the pilot through “investors” who would realize their profits once the pilot courses are implemented – not only as courses that would enhance the education of UC’s students, but as marketable products that would be sold to third party institutions and non-UC consumers.

Funding the pilot through private “investment” would create a serious conflict of interest with the stated goals of the pilot program: if the pilot were to demonstrate that in most cases online learning does not deliver educational results that are equal in quality to face-to-face learning as it is experienced in UC classrooms, investors would still clamor for a financial return on their investment, and thus the administration would have a strong incentive to “market” the product, despite the reservations of the professors of record or the objections of the Academic Senate and its representative committees. Indeed if, as these recommendations seem to suggest, control of these online educational “products” ends up at some central location, rather than on campuses and in departments, where the control of the curriculum belongs, the incentive to generate revenue streams rather than uphold the quality of the UC education will be all the greater. For these reasons, UC faculty need to strenuously object both to a funding model of the online pilot program that is based on investment in future revenue-generating online courses, and to relinquishing control of the products of our educational labor to the Office of the President or any other central body.

Further reason for concern lies in the vision of the teaching and learning processes that seems to have generated much of the language in these two proposals. The idea that our courses can be “canned” and then marketed to third parties displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how professors in tier 1 research universities differ from instructors in, say, junior colleges: most of us begin to revise our lectures and courses as soon as we deliver them, because we are — or are supposed to be — constantly on top of the newest literature, constantly challenging the existing literature with our own newest research. Similarly, this language betrays a misguided notion that once a course has been “created” online it can be infinitely expanded – either through the use of “GSIs” (Graduate Student Instructors) or through an online capacity to make the professor him or herself infinitely available to unlimited numbers of students. This vision seems to forget that explaining complex ideas, stimulating student debate, giving feedback on analytical assignments and critiquing student ideas is time consuming labor – but it constitutes the most important aspect of a learning process that fosters analytical thinking rather than rote memorization. Moreover, even when we allocate these responsibilities to graduate student instructors, we, the instructors of record, spend a great deal of time training the graduate student instructors to both deliver the content of our courses and to practice pedagogical methods that foster the growth of analytical thinking.

The authors of these two proposals attempt to sell the idea of online learning by appealing to our public mission to support and sustain an accessible and affordable quality higher education:

“Elite higher education increasingly means not only distinctively excellent but also exclusive and exclusionary. An aspect of our public mission, however, is to make access to excellence inclusive despite myriad challenges…..

I prefer, however, to turn this logic on its head: in today’s society, in which K-12 educational institutions are more segregated than they were in the 1960s, and when differences of household income are more pronounced than at any period since the 1920s, the brick and mortar classrooms of public universities provide some of the rare environments in which individuals actually have a chance to enter into dialogue with, and perhaps even befriend, people whose family incomes and ethnic backgrounds are substantially different from their own. The face-to-face dialogues and experiences that take place in the classrooms of our public universities constitute some of the major opportunities for fostering social transformation that our society can offer. We can’t afford to relinquish that potential by encouraging either our most privileged or our most economically challenged students to substitute an online education – and all of the social isolation that it entails – for a face-to-face education.

The proposal that UC’s online courses could be distilled into marketable products suggests that UCOPs principle motivation for developing such courses is a desire to generate revenue for the university and its private investors rather than a desire to improve the quality of the UC education or to make it more accessible to California’s qualified high school graduates. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of teaching that we, as tier one research professors, expect of ourselves, and the kind of critical thinking that we are supposed to promote among the top 12% of California’s high school graduates.

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