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Wendy Brown on Online Education

Graduate Student Association Forum on the Cyber Campus

Stanley 101, 5-7 PM

October 11, 2010

Presentation by Wendy Brown, Emanuel Heller Professor Political Science

The following are roughly the remarks I made at the October 11th forum.  I spoke from notes and also compressed a few points in the interest of time that evening, so the concordance is imperfect.

I have many thoughts about the differences between the virtual and live classroom.  Differences between, on the one hand, classes featuring professors with an avowed point of view, modestly attuned to the abilities of their students, working closely with their GSIs, and, on the other, authorless curriculums with instructors of record and hundreds of low-paid teaching assistants.  Differences between, on the one hand, students in a hushed auditorium, shorn of electronic connections and other distractions, listening to a line of Shakespeare, a measure of Chopin, a  principle of physics–taking them apart together to discover the kernel of their brilliance–and, on the other, a student staring at the line, the measure, the principle on a MacBook, perhaps at a Starbucks with email and facebook portals open, perhaps at home flanked by children whining, bosses calling, friends texting.  Differences between, on the one hand, a provocative lecture on the Bill of Rights followed by a discussion with the students about whether the First Amendment can distinguish between speech and action and whether the Second is more fundamentally about individual rights or states rights, and, on the other, students contributing to “on-line threads” on these topics.

There’s much to say about these and other differences.  However, in these few minutes, I want to speak mainly about another aspect of on-line education, for which, tellingly, we must switch lexicons from education to the market.

Markets and Money

What are some of the challenges of contemporary brand capital in marketing an elite product?  To expand the market for the brand, and cheapen the cost of its production, without so degrading both the cache and the quality that consumers will replace it with cheap knock-offs or substitutes; to out-run open-sourcing and pirating; to keep the brand alive over time; and to be on the front curve of every new wave in markets and technologies.  It is the measure of the marketization of public universities that these challenges, rather than that of providing a first rate higher education to an ever-changing public, are now organizing the university’s future.

Dean Edley’s plan for ramping up on-line education is forwarded with two avowed goals: to increase student access and to obtain much-needed revenue for the “bricks and mortar” campuses–in short, to extract profit from on-line education to fund on-campus education.   Presumably this last is the promise that has so excited the Regents and UCOP.   There is also a third goal, one never mentioned explicitly in Edley’s materials but featured front and center in the UC Commission on the Future (UCOF) Report just delivered to the Regents last week.  This is the goal of lowering the cost of educating all UC students by compressing time to degree (getting you out in less than 4 years) and using faculty more “efficiently.”   On-line ed for UC degree students, the UCOF report suggests, would contribute to both.

Now, this might be reasonable enough if a) on-line education could generate the revenue that might warrant the gleam in UCOP’s eye without savaging the quality of this education, and b) on-line UC education did not threaten to join the for-profit colleges in exploiting student access to federal loans as the source of the promised revenue.

Some facts are in order here.  To date, for-profit high quality on-line liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for most institutions engaged with it.   In their recent experiments with on-line education, Columbia, the University of Illinois, U21Global and an Oxford-Yale-Stanford consortium have lost hundreds of millions of dollars and have abandoned or radically scaled back their efforts (joining the failures of UKeU, NYU-online and others earlier in the game).

High quality liberal arts on-line education is not cheap:  where it has been modestly successful in providing a decent education, as at the UK’s Open University, it does not break even–far from it.   Why?   Open University courses are built by teams of researchers, are annually refreshed, and are intensively staffed by high-level academics.  OU is an expensive tax-supported operation, designed from the beginning for workers and other students unable to leave homes or jobs to obtain a college education.

On the other hand, for students, it is not clear what the incentive would be to pay UC, Columbia or NYU prices for on-line courses.  When operations like “Straighter Line” offer as many undergraduate courses as a student can take for $99/month, when growing competition has pushed down the average price of public university on-line instruction to $500/course, when open sourcing (at MIT and elsewhere) is improving and on the rise, what would generate a substantial market for an on-line curriculum priced at current and future UC tuition levels?   Why would UC-eligible students who did not get into UC, could not afford to leave home to attend a UC, or who seek to become eligible junior transfers to UC, pay UC prices for on-line courses?    Indeed, if, as Edley suggests, an on-line curriculum would be initially designed to offer lower division education, why would tens of thousands of students choose this expensive product over community colleges, state universities or other, less expensive, on-line state university courses?

A second group of facts is also important for understanding the economics of a proposed UC cyber campus.   The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges.   It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs.  Moreover, the high rate, much studied, seems impossible to fix.   “Nothing works” say the experts, because the problems producing the drop out rate are entrenched and intractable –students are under-prepared, are not as highly self-organized as they must be for success in an on-line course, expect the courses to be easier than they are, and/or are waylaid by the demands of life–jobs, children, other responsibilities–that kept them from being able to get to a campus in the first place.  Above all, many young students simply “forget” they are taking an on-line course and then get so far behind that they give up.

Why do drop out rates matter?  Because students pay for courses and programs they don’t complete.  Because the proprietary (for-profit) colleges and universities, to which Edley’s plan is appropriately compared given its revenue generating aspirations, are currently the subject of Congressional investigation for their rampant exploitation of student access to federal loans along with their misrepresentation of completion and job placement rates.  Because millions of former students are now “under water” with debt from on-line courses of study they never completed and/or whose benefit they never reaped.  Indebted alumni of on-line education are thus joining the ranks of homeowners paying off mortgages on properties whose value is lower than the loan or which they no longer even own.

This indebtedness is what the “access” and “social justice” that Dean Edley promises comes down to, and this indebtedness would become the source of  any “revenue generation.  Why?   Because poor students eligible for financial aid wouldn’t generate revenue and most well-off students would likely choose brick-and-mortar campuses, whether UC or others, over on-line education.  Who is left?  Debt burdened median-income students, a significant percentage of whom will not finish the courses or college degree they start but will be making student loan payments for years after failing to complete their education.

If this is the source of revenue generation Edley’s proposal promises, we ought to ask: is this an ethically acceptable way to close UC’s funding gap?

In sum, the world Dean Edley’s project enters is one in which high quality for-profit on-line liberal arts education is hugely expensive and has thus far met with colossal failure.  It is one which, if it were to realize the aim of generating profit, would exploit student indebtedness. And it is one which advances the aim articulated in the UC Commission on the Future to reduce the cost of a UC undergraduate education by reducing the relative size of the on-campus faculty and speeding students through their undergraduate educations.


I do not have sufficient time this evening to discuss what, apart from money, would be stolen from students channeled into on-line liberal arts education.  What would be lost in the way of the liberal arts higher education project of developing human beings, thinkers, citizens?   In several public settings, Edley has quipped that all his cyber students will miss is the keg parties, a remark I take to be more a measure of his own distance from undergraduate classrooms and university culture as a whole than a serious assessment of what has made liberal arts institutions the prize and pride of Western Civilization for 700 years.

Our era is so quick to reduce everything to bits of consumer value that it is no surprise university educations have succumbed to this way of thinking.   But what is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely “deliver content” to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away?  Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious?  Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?   Where there are moments of epiphany during or after a lecture, where one is transformed by thinking with or against one’s teacher or peers about a text, event or problem?  Where a single question from a student or response from a professor can clarify the presuppositions of a complex notion or crystallize the dark, shocking or exciting implications of a proposition or value?

As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy.  Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums. They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns.  On-line education necessarily emphasizes what Edley refers to as “content retention,” rather than what liberal arts education has long promised: the cultivation of thoughtful, worldly, discerning, perspicacious, and articulate civic-minded human beings.   Thus to substitute on-line for on-campus education, especially in those first two years of college when students are initiated into university level inquiry, is to spurn the enduring Socratic notion of learning as a “turning of the soul.”  It is also to privilege those courses that conform best to large-scale cyber teaching, those with the most information-based content.  It would thus further orient students and the future of the university toward education conceived simply as job training and credentialing.

There is, as I said, much more to say on this topic, and in particular on what it means for Edley to set all this aside as he reduces the non-graded elements of university life to keg parties.  But let me instead conclude quickly by mentioning two educational institutions that resolutely reject on-line education:

First, law schools.  While on-line law schools exist, none are accredited by the American Bar Association, and 49 states refuse to permit students graduating from the on-line schools to sit for the bar (California, god bless her ever-cheapening soul, is the one exception).  Deduce what you will from this fact, but it is especially noteworthy given how much of legal education is technical and rote.  Yet presumably learning to “think like a lawyer” is something that keepers of the profession believe requires the in-class experience of challenging dialogue between faculty and students and perhaps of students studying together outside the classroom as well.  There is probably no need to underline the irony that our Law School Dean is driving the train to put UC undergraduate education on-line when his own curriculum cannot and will not be – and precisely for reasons of academic excellence.

A second instance of an institution spurning cyber-education hails from the other end of the education spectrum.  Last winter, alas, I collected a speeding ticket in the Sierra foothills.  Although eligible for traffic school to clear the ticket, I was surprised to discover that Calavaras County did not allow use of the ubiquitous on-line traffic schools.   Curious, I phoned the traffic court clerk to ask why: “is it just because I could pay my teenage son to take it for me?”   No, she replied, “it’s because studies show that people don’t change their driving after taking the on-line courses but do with the in-person ones.”  And indeed, after spending a miserable Saturday in a Vallejo Ramada Inn meeting room reeking of Windex and stale coffee, suffering instruction from a barely competent and deeply unpleasant teacher… my driving changed!  This was something that had not followed upon the on-line traffic school course I took a decade earlier…and which I suspect is also not the case for those on-line ethics and sex harassment courses periodically required of UC faculty and staff.

Again, we lack time to analyze all the reasons for this disparity between the effect of on-line and in person remediation, but it returns us to the fundamental point about students being potentially transformed by education, not merely depositories for it.  Forget “from Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur,” one of Edley’s favorite figures for the potential reach of his on-line dream.  If, “from traffic schools to law schools,” fully on-line education has been deemed inadequate to the task of educating and changing the student, what does it mean to unleash it in the most transformative period in the life of young adults, the early years of college?

In short, Dean Edley’s proposal is both disingenuous and threatens the future of the University of California as the greatest public university in the world.  It uses the language of “social justice” to promulgate the economic exploitation of the less fortunate for the more fortunate.  It claims to seek to parity with on-campus course quality but is mainly planning to trade on the UC brand while delivering what cannot match an on-campus and in-class experience.   It claims to offer only financial gain for the campuses themselves but in fact threatens to permanently transform the structure, shape and mix of on-campus curriculums, graduate programs and faculty.