Higher Ed 2.0

By Daniel Weintraub

One day soon, a student with a laptop in her bedroom in Mission Viejo will be able to take a full-credit, certified class online from a community college across the county. Or from Cal State Fullerton. Or UCLA. The student will watch the professor’s lectures on her computer, ask questions via email or text message, and take exams, probably from home.

At least that’s the vision of Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat who wants to use technology to bust the bottlenecks that are blocking student access in California’s cash-strapped and over-subscribed systems of higher education.

Steinberg is vowing to get California’s public universities ahead of – or at least caught up with – a revolution underway in higher education while ensuring that the state continues to offer consistent, high quality classes, whether students take them on campus or over the Internet.

Steinberg last year carried legislation nudging the state’s universities into the world of electronic textbooks. Now he is back with a bill that would create a structure to certify 50 college courses that could be offered to students online.

Although Steinberg has already begun taking flak from the faculty for this idea, he sees it as a cautious move, stressing that online education need not cost any professors their jobs. He says he just wants the state to offer a few classes in subject areas that are in so much demand that students cannot fulfill their requirements in time to graduate.

“The world is changing,” Steinberg said last week. “Technology is an important force in our life. It is overwhelmingly, I think, a positive force in our lives. And we want to use it to try to help as many young people, as many students as possible, be able to achieve their dreams and compete in the modern economy.”

But the faculty who fear that their traditional methods, if not their jobs, are under attack are probably right. Education is ripe for the kind of transformation that has already ripped through other information-based industries, from music to books and the media. Decentralization is coming. Eventually, virtual professors will replace many of those now lecturing at the front of the hall, or their successors.

Whether they be current California faculty, professors from other universities across the country (and around the world), or education entrepreneurs, surely there are academics out there whose online lectures could substitute for the sometimes stale, less-than-stimulating fare that is common in undergraduate classes, where hundreds of students often fill massive lecture halls.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who has ever watched a TED lecture can imagine how engaging, and enlightening, an online lecture can be.

Chances are, the professor of the future will also come much more cheaply, since one enterprising lecturer could teach thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of students, with graduate assistants at each campus on hand to answer questions, just as they often do today.

That’s why Steinberg, normally a close ally of public sector unions, is taking a hit on this proposal from his friends in the faculty. He says any online courses will have to be approved by a faculty board. Many academics, however, see this as the first step toward privatizing the universities and a giant leap toward devaluing the traditional relationship between professor and student.

But as Steinberg says, if the universities don’t do this, it will be done to them.

It’s difficult to deny the utility of high-quality, free online classes offered by some of the most respected universities in the world. That’s already happening, thanks to places like Stanford, Harvard and MIT, which are pioneering a concept known as “MOOC” – or Massive Open Online Courses.

So far, these classes don’t come with any college credit. They’re for fun and personal growth. But from there, it is a relatively short step to offering credit and legitimate degrees to students who take most, if not all, of their classes online.

The early entrepreneurs include Udacity, formed by a Stanford professor who was one of the first to go online, Coursera, which is partnering with more than 60 universities around the world, and EdX, a non-profit founded by Harvard and MIT.

Although it is sure to be unsettling, this trend could be a giant opportunity for California’s public universities. Steinberg’s idea of offering limited classes for credit is one approach, and it promises to stretch limited taxpayer dollars further.

But even within the existing structure, the online education movement could improve a student’s experience in college (or high school, for that matter). If an online guest lecturer – or more than one – could substitute for an on-campus lecture, a professor could assign the lectures as homework and then use class time to engage students in what they heard and saw, answer questions, and work with them on solving problems. This flips the usual dynamic – lectures on campus, homework at home – and takes much better advantage of the teacher’s valuable time.

Kudos to Steinberg for ruffling feathers among friends, even if all he is doing it taking a baby step toward the future. But if he thinks online higher education is going to end with 50 tough-to-get classes, he’s wrong.

Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org.

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