- Quality and EqualityThe Proposed UC Cyber Campus
These remarks were delivered at the Graduate Student Association’s Forum on the Cyber Campus on October 11, 2010.
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 (graduate student instructors), and, on the other, authorless curricula 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 e-mail 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 [End Page 49] rights or states’ rights, and, on the other, students contributing to “online 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 online 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 cachet and the quality that consumers will replace it with cheap knockoffs or substitutes; to outrun 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 everchanging public, are now organizing the university’s future.
Dean Edley’s plan for ramping up online 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 online education to fund on-campus education. Presumably this last is the promise that has so excited the Regents and UCOP (University of California Office of President). 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 four years) and using faculty more “efficiently.” Online ed for UC degree students, the UCOF report suggests, would contribute to both.
Now, this might be reasonable enough if (a) online education could generate the revenue that might warrant the gleam in UCOP’s eye without savaging the quality of this education, and (b) online 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. [End Page 50]
Some facts are in order here. To date, for-profit high-quality online liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for most institutions engaged with it. In their recent experiments with online 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 online 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...