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E-Barbarians at the Gates?
Can an Internet-based education compare academically to a campus experience?

By David L. Kirp

 
WHEN THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS Global Campus, the school’s ambitious online initiative, crashed last spring, old-guard faculty reacted with undisguised glee. The university trustees pulled the plug because, two years and $7 million after its launch, the venture, intended to turn a profit, had enrolled only a few hundred students.

The fiasco in Urbana, like the earlier, much-publicized belly-flops at such institutions as Columbia and NYU, confirmed the naysayers’ belief that a university couldn’t deliver a top-quality education by relying on a nimble online for-profit model. Indeed, many academics persist in believing that instruction which makes substantial use of the Internet is by definition worse than the classroom version; they also think it’s vulgar, if not immoral, to treat education as a profit-making enterprise.

In a decade or so, however, this ill-starred venture won’t be seen as a decisive defeat for the e-barbarians at the gates but as a $7 million learning experience.

Despite the fond hopes of many academics, “back to the future” isn’t a realistic option in 2010. There’s no returning to the era when public dollars floated cheap-tuition higher education, for neither the money nor the political will to raise it exists. And for universities to keep on doing the same thing, only less of it, is a surefire recipe for obsolescence. The drastic recent cuts in public funding, though occasioned by the recession, are not an aberration but the acceleration of a quarter-century of public disinvestment in higher education.

Changing demographics, the disruptive technology of the Internet and fiscal realities all point in the same direction—greater reliance on the Web is the only feasible way to expand access to higher learning. This isn’t simply a bow to economic necessity: When the potential of the Web is intelligently harnessed, it’s also the best way to improve the quality of instruction. What’s more, despite the baleful Illinois experience, Web-based instruction represents higher education’s most promising source of new revenue. Community colleges, second-tier universities and extension programs have recognized this; it’s the elites that are the laggards.

The novel of manners draws its material from the divide between rhetoric and reality, which is why so many of those novels are set on college campuses. When professors at top-drawer colleges talk about the “ineffable experience” of the classroom, you know they’re mostly blowing smoke; and when they sneer at online instruction as turning their institution into another University of Phoenix, a familiar refrain among the ancien regime, they’re talking rubbish.

To be sure, there’s no substitute for the give-and-take of the seminar, with a professor at the top of her game engaging ten or 15 students in verbal gymnastics, but except at liberal arts colleges such experiences are rarities. Undergraduates are mostly taught by graduate students, who are at the beginning and not the top of their game. The lecture, the usual mode of instruction at Stanford and Slippery Rock alike, is better seen as an economic necessity than as a pedagogical strategy—it’s distance learning that begins in the tenth row.

A decade ago, Internet-based education consisted of posting lectures online. That approach served the useful purpose of allowing students to absorb the material at their own pace and pepper their instructors with querying e-mails. While this is still the dominant approach, the courses have become considerably more sophisticated, the talking head augmented by a host of visual aids. Now, instructional materials being developed at Carnegie-Mellon and a handful of other schools are incorporating tutorials that flag students’ problems and help them learn from their mistakes. Increasingly sophisticated interactive technologies permit students to talk among themselves, work together on projects and, as in an approach pioneered at MIT, carry out sophisticated lab experiments online. Constructing this kind of course requires far more attention to the connection between medium and message, far more intentionality about the nexus between learning objectives and ways of achieving those objectives, than professors are used to.

Can an Internet-based education compare academically to a campus experience? The faculty lions at the University of Illinois didn’t think so. They effectively killed the Global Campus by subjecting its courses to microscopic review—just as, in the late 1990s, regional accreditation agencies destroyed U.S. Open University, which offered a more rigorous, varied and inventive course of study than most universities can boast of, by postponing approval until the university’s money ran out. Those Illinois professors apparently constitute a majority nationwide: A 2009 Sloan Foundation survey, Learning on Demand, found that more than two-thirds of college provosts and deans do not believe their faculty accept the legitimacy of online education, a figure that hasn’t budged since the survey was first conducted in 2002.

This persisting hostility to e-learning is an article of faith as well as a reminder that the professoriate, widely regarded as liberal in its politics, is Burkean when it comes to pedagogy. Academics attend with microscopic thoroughness to seemingly everything under the sun—everything, that is, except what makes for effective teaching. Most professors aver, in “Lake Wobegon” fashion, that they are above-average instructors, but what transpires in all too many classrooms gives cause for heartburn. (If you’re skeptical, check out “Declining by Degrees,” John Merrow’s 2005 PBS documentary about the innards of college life.) Faculty don’t have a clue about when seminars or labs are pedagogically most valuable, whether short-answer tests are worth the paper they’re printed on, or even whether asking students to show up at lectures is better than simply handing them the lecture notes; it’s a sobering experience, for those who think the answer is obvious, to have a look at the notes that students take in class—when they’re not surfing the Internet.

On the relative merits of online and classroom instruction, there are data. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of matched-sample studies found that instruction conducted wholly online was actually more effective in improving student achievement than purely face-to-face teaching. Though that is a controversial conclusion—for one thing, students who take classes on the Web are considerably more likely to drop out—it is reason to take seriously the claims made for Internet-based learning. The best pedagogy, the study shows, involves blending online and face-to-face instruction. That result confirms the experience of researchers at Carnegie-Mellon, who have done the most sophisticated work in this field. There, students who took statistics classes online, using a tutorial program developed by the faculty, did as well as those who attended class. When instructors were given the opportunity to build on the online tutorial, digging more deeply into the material, students progressed twice as quickly.

At some point, persisting professorial hostility to online instruction must bend to the mounting evidence of its effectiveness. What’s left to the opposition is insecurity about becoming obsolete, the instructor largely replaced by an online tutorial and a chat room, reduced to answering e-mail. While this fear is understandable, especially for adjunct faculty, quality-minded universities will leave coverage of the basics to the Web, relying on professors to nurture students’ critical thinking in ways no machine can, at least as yet, hope to emulate.

“Not enough [institutions] have thought strategically about [online education],” said Frank Mayadas of the Sloan Foundation, in U.S. News and World Report. “There’s still a gap between the reality of online learning and the strategic thinking across the board.” Is an elite online university an oxymoron? The University of California may be the test case. Financially, the institution is up against it: Last year, an $813 million budget cut led to a cap in enrollment and a 39 percent tuition hike, a move that prompted statewide protests. With no financial relief in sight, and no other way to expand access, Christopher Edley, dean of Berkeley Law and advisor to UC President Mark Yudof, floated the idea of a virtual eleventh campus, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Can California succeed where Illinois failed? Virtual UC would open the doors to thousands of qualified California students who have been shut out of the system; and because of the university’s reputation, it could attract students from around the country and across the globe. Lesson learned from Illinois: Virtual UC would be built from the bottom up, with faculty designing and approving the courses, a trust-building exercise as well as an assurance of quality.

One thing’s for sure: A new crop of students will be pressuring the University of California, or another top-ranked school, to take the plunge. Last year one-quarter of all U.S. undergraduates took an online course—that’s a 17 percent jump in a single year. Cost was one major consideration; familiarity with the technology was another. This generation has grown up wired to learn online. They’re waiting for leading institutions of higher learning to follow their lead.


David L. Kirp, Professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education” (2005), and “Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Five Big Ideas for Improving the Lives of Children” (forthcoming).

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National CrossTalk May 2010

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