Education Makeovers: A Cautionary Tale of Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun and Jeb Bush

by Teri Yamada

I want to talk to you today about narratives of the education apocalypse, about eschatology and mythology and MOOCs and millennialism, and I do so not just as a keen observer of education technology but as someone trained as a folklorist. As much as being an ed-tech writer compels me to pay attention to the latest products and policies and venture capital investment, I am fascinated by the stories we tell about all of this. I am fascinated by what I see as some of the dominant end-times myths of the business world, of the tech industry. I am fascinated by how these myths — these sacred stories —  are deployed to talk about the end of the world —or at least  “the end of the university as we know it,” as Techcrunch puts it with the fervor of a true believer.
   Audrey Watters (7 Nov. 2013 from “The Education Apocalypse )

Those vested in the status quo lash out with political and personal attacks.  They hatch conspiracy theories about plots to destroy public education.  They do everything but confront the reality that the system they are defending has failed….If we don’t completely transform education, we are defaulting on the American Dream.  Jeb Bush (Education Reform Address to the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], Aug. 09, 2013)

Those of us who have lived abroad, specifically in Asia, come to appreciate the American Dream enchantment that enraptures many of our friends there. (1) Although its dreamy edges are fraying, “America” in Asia is still imagined as a near magical realm, a place where dreams come true and anything is possible. Historically, America has provided some valuable cultural space for certain makeovers (and snake oil salesmen), as Mark Twain notes, and before him, Alexis de Toqueville.

But this cultural space, allowing for upward mobility, has dramatically changed. Now “Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe” (New York Times).  In 2013 we have a huge inequality gap that Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University, warned against in “The Price of Inequality”

It is not uncontrollable technological and social change that has produced a two-tier society, Stiglitz argues, but the exercise of political power by moneyed interests over legislative and regulatory processes. “While there may be underlying economic forces at play,” he writes, “politics have shaped the market, and shaped it in ways that advantage the top at the expense of the rest.” …. In short, those with power use it to insulate themselves from competitive forces by winning favorable tax treatment, government–protected market share and other forms of what economists call “rent seeking” (New York Times).

The current political focus on a higher ed makeover keeps concerned academics busy defending their disciplines rather than using their considerable talent to solve policy problems. Demeaning higher ed has become a rhetorical device in a dysfunctional political environment, reinforcing the current structural economic problems. Blaming the academy for its inability to prepare students for many jobs that don’t exist deflects public attention from the real problem that must be addressed—economic power that influences news media and politics: “The importance of Stiglitz’s contribution (and that of other dissidents) to the public debate cannot be overestimated. The news media and the Congress are ill-equipped to address the role of economic power in shaping policy. Both institutions are, in fact, unaware of the extent to which they themselves are subject to the influence of money” (New York Times).

Enter the brilliant and charismatic Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, a useful distraction ushering in the Year of the MOOC (2012) makeover. From a free, open-source connectivist model developed by Canadians George Siemens and Phil Hill, Thrun and Coursera’s Daphne Koller, among others, made over the concept with a promise of commodification that attracted venture capital. Thrun and California Governor Jerry Brown connected to mutually embrace MOOCs as a transformative power in the makeover of California’s pubic higher education system, framed as resisting the solutions online education could offer.  This makeover was announced in a Los Angeles press conference —Re-Booting California Higher Education—framed as a discussion about 21st century skills on January 14, 2013 (edSurge) . The President of San Jose State University, Mohammad Qayoumi, announced  pilot programs with both Udacity and edX, neglecting to consult the faculty. (2)

George Siemens on “MOOCs: How did we get here?”

See also Jeffrey R. Young’s ebook,  Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption (2013)

MOOCs went viral. Just a handful of politicians, university presidents or university board members, who quickly embraced the concept of MOOCs mostly without research or debate, became media darlings. “By early 2013, nearly every major institution of higher learning–from the University of Colorado to the University of Copenhagen, Wesleyan to West Virginia University–will be offering a course through one of these platforms” (fastcompany). Paradoxically, a Chronicle of Higher Ed survey during the summer of 2013 indicates only 8% of faculty and 5% of college presidents believe that MOOCs’ will have a potential positive impact on future higher education in America. (3)

Thrun’s current re-makeover is attributed to the failed San Jose State pilot project. He states: “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product …. It was a painful moment” (UV Letters).  This new Udacity makeover transforms their MOOC courses into a more conventional online learning commodity. It will be, Thrun admits, “‘the biggest shift in the history of the company,’ a pivot that involves charging money for classes and abandoning academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning…. ‘We changed the equation and put people on the ground.’ By adding mentors and a help line, and making phone calls to remind students to do their work…” (UV Letters).

So how are we informed by this tale of transformation? What does it say about us and American culture: the rush to embrace the illusive  quick fix in Makeover Nation? Does our fixation on power, brilliance and wealth as ‘value’ cloud our judgement? Compare Thrun to Jeb Bush,  yet another education makeover expert. Claiming policy success as Florida’s governor due to the state’s improved K-12 test results, he ignores the fact that these test scores plummeted in 2009 (Reuters). No matter! With his current remake, he  eschews No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for Common Core and digital technology. Bush, with powerful political and corporate connections, promotes his lucrative Foundation for Excellence in Education—vouchers, cyber schools, and mandatory online classes for K-12—supported by ALEC and others. (3) There is profit in this frenzy to makeover higher ed in America.

Higher education is an enormous business in the United States–we spend approximately $400 billion annually on universities, a figure greater than the revenues of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter combined….(fastcompany)

We already have seen the greed, power, and nonchalance of the for-profit, on-line ed sector  in the past decade and  the disappointing inability of the federal government to reign in its excesses. And it is true that parents are rightfully frustrated by the high cost of tuition and genuinely fearful for their children’s future even with a B.A.  They want assurance their college investment will be worth it, that their children will get a job when they graduate. No one can blame them for this.

But the reality check is harsh. Making education cheaper or better will not create enough jobs or solve the economic inequality gap.  MOOCs won’t solve this problem either. We typically cannot guarantee a child will secure a job with a B.A. in any discipline without a network of connections and internships.  There are just not enough good jobs being generated in most economies, including Egypt, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Japan and China.  Meanwhile MOOCs are perceived differently in Europe, Asia and the Middle East with their distinct educational infrastructures, regulations, and need for open source access. (3)

Where does this leave us in the U.S.? Social Philosopher Ulrich Beck predicts unprecedented global displacement of unemployed workers searching for jobs in our age of “liquid modernity,” an era of uncertainty that Anthony Eliott describes as an age of “corporate networking, short-term project work, organizational downsizing, self-help manuals, compulsive consumerism, cybersex, instant identity makeovers and therapy culture.” (4) A first step might be pausing to assess the complexity of our present moment with its threat of dismantling the very core of higher education— yet another makeover without a center. Some faculty are standing up to this:  Rutgers U. graduate school faculty who voted to block a Pearson partnership because it doesn’t save student’s money (insidehighered); the philosophy professors at San Jose State whose “Open letter to Professor Michael Sandel” about their Udacity concerns went viral (insidehighered)  Faculty must lead change having understood the complexity of this challenge, including broader influences that are driving the current federal preoccupation with performance metrics (see clip below on British connections). As Cathy Davidson, cofounder of Duke University’s HASTAC program advocates: university professors need to make a case for what they do in the classroom more articulately and persuasively to the public, legislators, donors and students “because if we don’t, it will be made for us. And we won’t like the result” (edSurge).

For some background on the British connection to the U.S. Dept of Education’s current infatuation with performance metrics see Prof, Mark Stiles’ short documentary,  “The Avalanche that Hasn’t Happened.”


1.This started from the enormous popularity of the soap opera Dallas in the 1980s and has  received assistance from the multiple, highly profitable Disneylands that sprouted in Japan and China.  For the global reach of Dallas, see also Ien Ang’s 1985 Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, Menthuen, London. p. 11 ISBN 978-0-416-41630-5.  The new 2012 version was broadcast globally including Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore.

2. President Qayoumi was everywhere in the media, including a write up as one of the ‘top ten’ tech innovators in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s publication “The Digital Campus” (May 3, 2013) and the more news about the failure of the Udacity pilot.

3. The blog “Global Higher Ed” has a set of excellent links on Thrun and also on MOOCs in other countries.  See “Mapping Coursera’s Global Footprint” on November 19 and “Briefly Noted (reactions to Sebastian Thrun’s Fast Company hagiography).

4. Anthony Elliot, “The New Individualist Perspective: Identity Transformations in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.”  (Autum 2010).

MOOCs at U Minn — “Educating for democracy: the power of presence” (Lars Christiansen and Michael Lansing)

Internet Connectivity

Internet Connectivity

This essay is reposted from MINNPOST with permission of the authors.

Educating for democracy: the power of presence

By Lars D. Christiansen and Michael J. Lansing | 07/24/13

This summer, in collaboration with the educational company Coursera, the University of Minnesota began offering Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The decision brought a national debate about the transformative effects of the Internet on colleges and universities to Minnesota. Other local schools are also exploring the possibilities of MOOCs. Meanwhile, faculty either wring their hands or join in as ongoing debates about the meaning and consequences of online-only education continue.

Those who boost for MOOCs promise more access to higher education with lowered costs. Yet they make assumptions about teaching that obscure the complicated ways in which people successfully learn. Rarely do these commentators attend to the power of presence in teaching and learning. These assumptions often lead to overstatements regarding the democratic potential of online-only education.

Lars Christiansen

Lars Christiansen

First, they assume that technology refers only to devices for online coursework. Too often, pundits conflate technology with the latest version of Internet-ready computers, pads, and smartphones. In fact, chalk and chalkboards, pencils and papers, dry erase markers, overhead projectors, cameras, slide machines and video projectors are also technologies. Teachers and learners used technologies long before medieval Europeans invented universities.

Second, observers usually argue that online education is novel. In fact, digital tools have been used by educators for over 40 years. Most college and university courses already depend on online instructional software such as D2L, Moodle, or Blackboard.

More than ‘sages on stages’

Third, pundits presume that more typical forms of education consist only of “sages on stages.” Yet colleges and universities offer learners much more than lectures. Most institutions provide more diverse experiences, including: discussions, internships, lab work, field work, archival research, literature reviews, group projects — and, of course, online discussion boards, wikis, blogs and web pages.

Fourth, MOOC boosters assume that education is about the thinking mind, not the feeling body. For the last 100 years, educational theorists have consistently rejected such dualistic thinking. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Mark Johnson insist that feelings and emotions — which emerge through sensory capabilities of the person in their surroundings — remain crucial to intellectual endeavor. Feeling and thinking are phases of an experience, not separate and distinct acts.

Left unchallenged, these assumptions lead those who advocate for online-only learning to argue that the format supplies the same learning experience as face-to-face settings. In their mind, online education delivers the same thing as existing forms of higher education, but makes them cheaper and more accessible.

Online education offers promise it can’t deliver

It doesn’t. Instead, an experience with far less potential is being offered to greater numbers of people, even as boosters present it as the same experience as the varied forms of education that already exist. Online education offers the promise of something it cannot deliver. It robs the very people that it claims to enrich. The rush to online learning also undermines and devalues educators who understand and deploy the vast opportunities for powerful learning that come from engaging the whole person.

Michael Lansing

Michael Lansing

After all, content is not an abstract thing that teachers merely communicate to students. Learning occurs through any number of distinct experiences. The qualities of every educational experience matter. By itself, online learning — involving sitting (or standing) at a computer, looking at a screen, scrolling with a mouse, and typing with a keyboard — offers a limited experience. When presented as a substitute for or alternative to direct experience and embodied presence, online learning insults rather than enriches.

In contrast, physical presence offers the gift of embodied interaction.  To be sure, some instructors succumb to giving boring lectures to students who remain uninspired, disconnected, and passive. Others, however, embrace a multitude of experiences to help students learn. They work hard to evaluate the educational value of every reading, lecture, site visit, guest lecture, film, puzzle, problem, research project, laboratory experiment, performance, or service and community-based project for learners.

Ignoring embodied experience: a major step backward

The power of presence must find a place in public debates about the merits of MOOCs. This requires educators to take seriously the sensory capabilities of students, as well as the role of feeling and emotion in learning. Teaching that ignores embodied human experience represents a major step backward in educational practice. It also reveals a staggering ignorance of educational philosophy and theory.

Minnesota’s colleges and universities should work to empower students in their quest for higher education by reducing tuition and debt instead of embracing disembodied online-only learning. Then they could increase access to an education that cultivates excitement about learning, develops a wide range of skills and competencies, and fosters empowered citizens committed to making a better society. All learners — irrespective of socio-economic circumstances — deserve nothing less.

Lars D. Christiansen is an associate professor and chair of sociology, Augsburg College.  Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor and chair of history, Augsburg College.


The “Not-So-Lite” SUMMER READING LIST for Academics

From the "No Reading After the Internet" Salon site.

From the “No Reading After the Internet” Salon site.

The “Not-So-Lite” SUMMER READING LIST for Academics!

    Teri Shaffer Yamada

Jeffrey J. Selingo, Editor at Large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has extensive experience with the politics of higher education.  In  College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students  (2013), he historically constructs with thoughtful veracity an understanding of our current  disruptive-technology moment in higher education while anticipating future trends.  He suggests as many as three-quarters of current higher ed institutions may not survive the shake-up over the next decade because they are financially unsound.  His overview of the “lost decade in higher education” (1999-2009) and the fraud or willful ignorance in student loan and tuition discount practices entrenched in the higher education sector produces faculty outrage. This business practice of obfuscating tuition costs for profit in the education sector has certainly fostered the legislative shift to cheaper education experiments with MOOCs in California’s public ed sector (the least culpable) and elsewhere across the country, along with the growing public perception that a degree may not be worth the cost.  Highly recommended for faculty.

Musician and computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013) creatively explores the intersection of  technology, economics and culture  and “also looks at the way the creative class —especially musicians, journalists and photographers — has borne the brunt of disruptive technology.”  See Scott Timberg ‘s review.  And for another opinion on the cultural impact of technology see Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (2013)Both authors remind us how in our world of disruptive technology moderation is important as a response to the current wholesale embrace of analytics, framed as the solution to (all) problems in education.  This drive for a quick-fix solution to student access, bottleneck courses, or the four-year graduation rate, through the use of technology and analytics, has unintended consequences. (1)  We need the education media to embrace this discussion in a more complex, nuanced manner.

Lost in digital cyberspace. Student attempting to read academic prose on a digital platform for an open-source quiz.

Lost in digital cyberspace. Student attempting to read academic prose on a digital platform for an open-source quiz.

Shahnaz Habib’s review of Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future is a thoughtful discussion of the debate on physical and digital books, typically framed in an “either-or” proposition.  To many of us, the either-or discussion is absurd.  We use an e-reader for light reading or news and “codex” for the purpose of research and publications.  Anecdotally, I recently discovered a student in class who had used her smart phone to scan chapters from our 654-page text and was attempting to use that digital copy for an open source quiz.   It was not working well for her. She is smiling about my OMG reaction as I contemplate copyright issues among other things.

For those contemplating how to reach our new N0 CHILD LEFT BEHIND freshmen population, see Elizabeth F. Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).  This handbook contains many creative ideas for engaging students in active learning practices with or without the application of blended learning pedagogy.   The first few chapters explain why we often don’t see engagement and motivation in independent learning among  our freshman students; and how we can foster a meaningful educational experience, for both instructor and pupil, as we switch from passive to active learning strategies.  In many public university systems like my own, there has been no significant funding to support faculty development in new teaching pedagogies over the past decade (if ever).  Dedicated faculty, noticing the sad disengagement from learning among our freshmen cohorts, have struggled to retrain themselves in an organizational vacuum or in an institution with an administrative ideology that incorrectly demeans faculty as obstructionist and unwilling to change.   Student Engagement Techniques is an inspirational example of faculty concern and creativity in new pedagogical practices nationally.  (2)


As a reward for all this heavy reading, please consider Indian writer Farahad Zama’s novel The Marriage Bureau for Rich People (Penguin, 2009).

(1) This the issue of bottlenecks and barriers to 4-year graduation see Michel Feldstein’s blogpost “The Scope of the Bottleneck Course Problem” on e-Literate.

(2) For insight into how devastating ‘teaching to the test’ has been for K-12, and what the new push for analytics (if done thoughtlessly) would mean for higher ed, watch Ellie Rubenstein’s impassioned video resignation (Illinois, Lincoln Elementary School).  Highland Park News (updated May, 28, 2013).


State-Mandated Online Degree Programs: The Threats to Real Learning, True Access, Employability, Citizenship, and National Security (Boak Ferris)


Guest blogger Boak Ferris, author of the e-textbook Think and Rethink, is a former test-coordinator, current 30-year faculty member, and writer at CSU Long Beach.

State-Mandated Online Degree Programs:

The Threats to Real Learning, True Access, Employability, Citizenship, and National Security

States, governors, universities, in their rush to provide ostensible “increased educational access”—but more likely to cut education costs—are speeding out of control downhill to mandate that universities generate online degree programs and online credit-satisfying courses.  Downhill is the operant term, as advocates of these programs have not fully analyzed the risks and dangers, first, to the overall quality of American life and education, second, to the American spirit of innovation, independence, and creativity, and third, to American public safety.  Also at risk are our national reputation as the world leader in quality secondary education, our historic democratic compassion in granting one-on-one access between any student and a specialist/experienced educator, our intentions to maintain a civilized public body, and indeed, our national security.  Until certain urgent issues are addressed, and solved, educational policymakers must exercise restraint in establishing mandated online degree programs.

First, educators in a classroom play a much greater role than rambling about specialized stuff.  Recent neuroscience research and breakthroughs have demonstrated that human learning is a motor process. Even learning abstract subjects is best anchored in pedagogies that require students to engage motor processes.  The most lasting learning takes place when students can watch, in person, an expert model the skills and leverage disciplinary knowledge expected to be applied in a specific profession.  Students also need to demonstrate, via writing or speaking, their evolving acquisition of these skills and knowledge. It’s more than spectating during an online presentation on how to do something.  A live, present student can immediately ask a live, present expert about obstacles and roadblocks confronting the learning process.  These golden opportunities to rapidly learn and spontaneously engage diminish when students do not share the same loci as their experts.  Of equal value are the opportunities for students to observe the application of motor skills and analytical methods from outside their elected fields of study, via general education electives, so that they can learn to cross-associate the best that other disciplines offer to the standard sets of skills they will eventually need in their chosen professions.  Thus, American education in a physical classroom involves a democratic—and professionally socializing—process, some or much of which must be lost, if students become more like agreeable sheep sitting at distant computer monitors.

High school students often arrive to college too passive.  Critical thinking skills have all but disappeared, as college professors around the country have written about and can attest.  Perhaps the passivity is a natural artifact of media-device addiction coupled with a state of permanent hypnosis produced by obsessing over national testing standards on so-called facts.  Still, the freedom to speak with, and challenge, a physically present professional has drawn invested students from all over the world to matriculate in American universities.  But imagine the possibility, if badly designed online courses, with untold numbers of enrolled students, end up mechanically providing inflexible course curricula.  Consider the possibility that very little distance exists between a blanket standardization of curriculum across a variety of degree-granting institutions and institutionalized fascism of university content overseen by a few CEO/CFO administrators who may have little to no successful in-class teaching and improvisatory experience.

Also, once faculty become disinvested from curricular decisions, and once cross-applicable, broad-spectrum knowledge, academic and pre-professional experience, and artistic skills (i.e., outside-the-box innovation) are considered “irrelevant” or separable by the interests of private investors and “education vendors,” then American education becomes solely a capitalistic endeavor, where conflicts of interest must eventually play a sole role in driving curricular offerings and specific degree programs.  Lobbyists for investors and vendors can approach university administrators with their particular “brands” and perhaps insist on brand placement being tied to funds, resources, and the sole teaching of specific courses and disciplines and the granting of degrees.  Does an educated democratic citizen of the United States truly believe that engineers, scientists, and business students seeking degrees benefit by not having to take art or liberal arts or languages or ethics classes?  The lifeblood of science advancement depends on publication, whereby professional documentation leverages linguistic skills to yield logical and theoretical rigor.  Transferring these skills to students belongs to the purview of linguistic experts who understand how graduates must eventually learn to compensate for the limitations and irrationalities inherent in all human languages.

As an example illustrating the necessity to maintain arts and letters in a complete scientific education, consider that Galileo, a man of science, seemingly initiated the science revolution in Europe.  Indeed, Galileo worked as an experimenter and observer, leveraging his motor skills, in a 3-D space, but he also was a man of letters, who wrote up his results in order to better understand and reflect on the foreseeable hidden prejudices lurking in his analyses.  Now juxtapose Boccaccio, however, who single-handedly invented both European humanism and rationalism, thereby giving birth to and setting the ideological precedents for the Catholic-Galileo’s “scientific impulses,” by way of his literary masterpiece, The Decameron, published two hundred years before the appearance of Galileo.  In that work, the narrator implicitly challenges God’s policy of non-interference in the recent Plague.  Boccaccio’s literary, rhetorical, and comic techniques shook Europe loose from a primitive, anti-education Catholic church, by articulating an implicit call for a human-based response—requiring measured methods (rationalism) to confront the obstacle that threatened humanity’s survival.  Literary artists have always questioned and re-envisioned the causal forces of the cosmos, leading to myriad advancements in science.  Art inspires science which informs art and so-on, a mighty recursive engine of innovation.  Do budget-conscious curricular designers really wish to remove arts, literature, philosophy, and languages from a potent higher-education experience?  And to do so in a one-size-fits-all online setting?  It’s like moving from a jet engine to a one-stroke lawnmower.

Arguably, then, a true democratic top-notch education must never be tied (down) to cost-effective shortcuts-to-degrees in a country that wishes to maintain a competitive global edge.  Evolving young professionals most need a supervised domain of space and time where they can develop and practice—and cross-associate—a wide range of skills sets.

However, once policy makers blend into one pot education, curriculum, brands, testing, degrees, and money, then a Democratic American education becomes prostituted.  Money for degrees, quick and dirty, in and out the door.  These are not alarmist concerns, as some CSU’s already have corporate sponsors for different divisions and departments and colleges, whereby implicit external pressure rationalizes reducing so-called irrelevant courses, the kinds of courses that delay students toward acquiring useful rapid degrees:  humanities, art, ethics courses, music, and foreign languages curricular offerings, among others.  My own home CSU, over the last few years, has implemented similar such curricular changes and policies, with more pending, to my shame and sadness.  Such deletions may serve private institutions, but they are certainly not satisfactory for public and state universities, where students need to develop humanistic, cross-cultural, linguistic, and compassionate “citizenship” skills.  (California’s Governor Brown has not let on that he sees these dangers.)  Frankly speaking, news stories of lame-duck online programs failing have increased over the past year and a half, largely because the programs’ constituencies and clientele have not graduated nor found success, notwithstanding the rapacious and usurious financial practices associated with these programs.  To put it briefly, national employers know whom they wish to hire, and where from, and their hiring practices will serve as the ultimate certification of successful secondary institutional online degree-granting programs. Late-breaking news, as of April of 2013, shows that indeed, national employers are reluctant to hire, perhaps because they suspect that the omnipresence of online courses betokens a lack of citizenship skills in candidates.  Graduate schools will similarly screen successful candidates by undergraduate institution reputation.  If the CSU-system wishes to truly serve its students and guarantee employability, why would it want to follow these online failures?  Why would legislators admire these failures?

Note how a very strong secondary public effect intensifies and speeds student-learning, when learners “compete” and educators are present in the same physical space.  Competition to learn is also felt more keenly by candidates when they can see and hear their “classmates.”  Similarly, watching an immortal drama or a comedy or political speech in a public space shared by other thinkers responding audibly increases a spectator’s awareness and sensitivity to the nuances of art and performance and ideology. Premature babies grow faster and respond more positively when a live musician plays music in the nursery, as opposed to those infants who heard the same music piped in over loudspeakers.  Human charisma produces more impact in person, than over a television or monitor.  When tied to learning, the tangible aura of a present gifted instructor inspires students to learn faster and more enjoyably, whereas the square shape of a monitor arguably squeezes a viewer’s brain forward into an unreal and distant 2D cartoon. Neural-mapping research shows that learning among students proceeds faster and embeds longer when experienced in a shared three-dimensional visual and acoustical space.  Also, in an era where public policymakers encourage diversity, how much can diversity be respected when a threatened state-mandated curricular uniformity underlies online degree programs and courses?  Currently, localized public universities construct specialized curricula to serve students belonging to nearby populations or sub-populations, students who end up working for local industries and employers—a necessary service that may end if a “one-size-fits-all” education package is “legislated” for the sake of “consistency.”

Furthermore, “classrooms,” plural, imply the existence of neighboring classrooms, adding to the public perception of knowledge and other intangibles gained transparently.  Faculty, students, and observers walking by can witness what transpires in a public university classroom, sans any “secrecy.” The implicit transparency of democratic and public educational practices contributes to a shared sense of evolving professional responsibility among instructors, students, and visitors alike.  Public classrooms provide an arena for a “live” screening process whereby experienced instructors can directly observe students, participating, working quietly, or in teams.  The public nature of American higher education discourages and inhibits psychopaths and, to a lesser degree, sociopaths (who are more adept at hiding in plain sight), from advancing to positions of responsibility. People of aberrant psychopathology require institutionalized practices that allow them to hide, work, and advance in secrecy to further their aims. How can it not be mentioned or considered that criminals will benefit from a “knee-jerk” proliferation of online degree-granting programs?  Evil requires four little helpers to engender chaos: fear (No money!, Students will challenge the status quo!), ignorance (Is there evil?  What is it?  Let’s not learn about that.), complicity (look the other way.  Stand aside.  Institute practices to help it proliferate.), and a dark space where it multiplies unnoticed.  It also requires people in positions of authority who know better to “pretend” that evil doesn’t exist, that evil is a supernatural concern, not one of confronting everyday anti-social human behaviors.  To understand evil and its etiology means to “see it,” recognize it, interrupt and eliminate its causal factors, and thereby, leave it to a culture of the human past.

At our university, recently, we all signed mandatory intent-to-inform acts in cases where faculty suspect child abuse occurring to any of our students.  The expectation placed on our experienced judgment reflected an appropriate professional concern.  Our duties include custodianship of a free and democratic society.  But faculty and university officials will be less able to meet such duties and obligations to protect society or even to recommend candidates for professional service when all we see are “avatars”—or perhaps a single camera lens.  And note that at least one CSU intends to use students!  as faculty (called Instructional Student Assistants) in its online program(s).  As an undergraduate I would have been a good candidate to serve as an ISA running an online course for my home university—except.  Except—I had not the maturity, experience, or insight to recognize abusive personalities, to avoid their manipulations, or to deflect them back toward their assignments and academic and citizenship responsibilities.

All of the above lead to another immediate and urgent concern, which should engage Homeland Security, often overlooked in online education incentives, and which involves confirming the identities of enrolled students.  How does the instructor of record, or indeed a university administration, know if a student enrolled in online curricula is the person doing the work and achieving the degree?  Yes, high-school seniors must verify their identities and complete college-level testing to apply to and enroll in a university, but identities can be stolen or “piggy-backed” or duplicated.  Outright criminals, who need entry to professional work or graduate school, could easily “buy” an identity, and then a degree simply by hiring desperate scholars to do online work for them.  At some private universities, it’s already possible to buy a degree, i.e., without attending class—and that may be bad enough.  But the concern here centers on public universities, where policymakers should consider a graver threat.  Imagine a terror cell, wishing to infiltrate positions in government and industry, but needing advanced degrees, stealing or duplicating identities, and then hiring substitutes to attain those degrees on their behalf, so as to gain access to our citizenry—and/or to our infrastructure.  Their cause could be aided by finding at least one willing faculty member, advisor, or administrator at the university of record.  By the time employers or graduate schools found out the frauds, it might be too late.  As a former testing coordinator, I had the responsibility to address identity frauds, and I can vouch for this scenario above not being some kind of movie-fantasy.  Adequate identity and security checks for online enrolled students do not exist at this stage of our technology, especially in an era when cash-strapped state and public universities already struggle with the easily-hackable student-population management software they have available so far.  By contrast, in a physical classroom, the student of record must be present with approved student identification, which an instructor can spot-check.

These concerns, and others not listed here for lack of space, all urge taking deep responsibility, conducting thorough analysis, and engaging in cautious planning prior to enacting premature policies and legislation prior to rolling the big snowball of state-mandated online degree programs.

“It’s not what it seems: Online in a social world” (Don Barrett)

  Guest blogger imagesDon Barrett, Ph.D., is recently retired from the faculty at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) where he taught health sociology; he was also CSUSM chapter president of the California Faculty Association (CFA).  Though retired from the CSU, he continues his advocacy on social class, labor, and LGBT issues through CFA, the Pacific Sociological Association, and other venues.  He may be reached at

“It’s not what it seems: Online in a social world”

Having taught a mixture of partial and completely  online Sociology courses at CSU San Marcos since 2000, my experiences have been similar to those described by Prof.  Jeff Kolnick (see Restructuring Public Hi Ed of 3/15/2013).  Like Kolnick, I found online education to be very effective in general, and to have special advantages in two areas:  1) at providing strong interaction with a wider range of students than one gets in the classroom and, 2) at allowing students the flexibility to work their studying around the increased work and family demands they are encountering.  Also like he noted, experience of many faculty at CSUSM was that effective online education usually took more time than a typical classroom taught course, and did not work well with large classes.

Though I found online education to be effective and to generate good interactions with students, I have strong concerns about the push for online education as a solution to budget problems.  Why?  Because administrators and policy makers are confusing online with automated, and because a key socialization characteristic of education is being overlooked in the push for efficiency.

Online is not automated:  The cost arguments used to promote online are far too often based on an assumption of reducing personnel costs by setting up courses that either run themselves or run with most of the work done by lower-paid technicians.  MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be particularly setup along these lines.  From conversations with colleagues who teach online, the main efficiency in teaching online is that students can schedule classes to fit in with their schedules and thus be more productive in the class, there is no efficiency for the faculty who  teach them.

Though many colleagues and I don’t find online to be that efficient, we are likely to be biased.  In fact, two clear situations come up where a more automated online might work, though the value of such online remains questionable.  One situation where online would work is where the course focuses on a relatively closed set of skills and doesn’t contain the critical reflection that one normally expects as part of a college education.  The second situation where limited faculty engagement might also be successful is for work with that limited set of students who already have strong knowledge of the subject and in fact could have tested out of the course rather than taking it.  Neither of those situations seem to provide strong arguments for online college-level education.

Socialization:  The just-noted focus on automating content highlights a key problem that is not being addressed in the push for online education (regardless of the level of automation.)  In the push for online, we seem to be forgetting about the role of a college education in building interaction skills and in encouraging the sorts of cross-pollination that happens when people from different backgrounds and perspectives casually interact.  While colleges are focusing on more and more efficiency, leaders in the post-industrial economy are realizing the high value in the seemingly wasted time chit-chatting while waiting in line for a double-latte.  As indicated in the discussions around Marissa Mayer’s decision to end employees ability to work from home at Yahoo, actual face-time is a key component of the creativity needed in the contemporary workplace.  For young adults not yet in the workplace, a physical college with classrooms, snack bars, sidewalks, and faculty offices is an ideal location to hone their abilities to interact with, and benefit from, the perspectives of  others from different backgrounds and life experiences.

Given the value of college as a socialization agent, how does online education fit in?  In the balance of the demands on modern students, I would argue that online education can play a role, but that there also needs to be very conscientious planning to make sure students have a significant proportion of actual face-time with diverse sets of other students and faculty.   To insure a good mix of experiences with other students, care needs to be taken to make sure that completely online courses are not clustered into specific fields of study or at specific levels (e.g., all prep courses), and to require that an identifiable and not insignificant (e.g., 50%?) portion of a student’s involve face-to-face interaction.  Doing this would require a high level of planning, and support from administration for that planning, regarding the place of online education in degree requirements.


Going back to the beginning, from my own experience, online education can work and be quite effective.  But, if we move from a narrow focus of education within a course and instead look at the broader implications of being in an educational environment, then we see that very careful consideration should be given regarding the role of online coursework within the totality of the student experience.

To back up this need for comprehensive planning, one final observation.  Circumstantial evidence from my own online teaching is that many of the students who did well in the courses talked about informal face-time that they had with other students through other shared classroom courses.  If this observation is common in online courses, then it turns out that online education works best when it is not as solo as one usually assumes.  When it is, in fact, not really 100% online but instead involving informally created study groups.

Prof. Jeff Kolnick (Southwest Minn. State U.): “A Teacher’s Take on Online Learning”

The post below is republished with the permission of Jeff Kolnick (Minnesota 2020 Blog).  An experienced instructor of online education, his comments on MOOCs echo our concerns in California with   State Senator Steinberg’s introduction of  Senate Bill 520 to establish The California Virtual Campus.   Undoubtedly this bill arises from Steinberg’s frustration at the slow pace of change in the public higher ed sector and his own disinterest or inability to create  the kind of progressive tax reform necessary to re-fund public education in the State.  But imposing a superstructure of online courses on unaligned  layers of organizational complexity —110 community colleges, 23 CSU campuses,  and 10 UCs  serving over 3.5 million students  —may create more havoc.  Beyond this, dumping WASC and using ACE as the accrediting agency for these new courses is troubling. Moreover the demand that at least two courses are developed “that support basic skills education courses in English, English as a second language, or mathematics” and the use of MOOCs for this purpose verges on the deeply problematic.  We are entering a cynical  age of “good-enough education” for the hundreds of thousands of children in California who cannot afford to attend a quality liberal arts college.  They will be offered the “good enough” cheap  option, which actually may not be good enough for the higher-skill jobs anticipated in the State.  We need thoughtful, not quick-fix, leadership.  Teri Yamada

A Teacher’s Take on Online Education

By Jeff Kolnick, Hindsight Community Fellow, March 13, 2013 at 7:30 am

As a history teacher at Southwest Minnesota State University, let me weigh in on the debate about online learning. I’ve taught online within the MnSCU system every year since 2004. I am not opposed to online education nor am I afraid of it.

At a recent online panel discussion focused on best practices, there was a general consensus that with proper class size control and good pedagogy, students write more in online classes. This can help improve written communication skills, especially when faculty are vigilant about making developmental comments and providing opportunities for revision. The online approach can widen opportunities for shy students to get involved in class discussion more easily than in face to face classes. It also cuts geographic barriers, which is better than no access at all.

Simply put, the upside depends on well designed and rigorous course with regular faculty involvement. This means frequent appearances in discussion forums and daily postings of one kind or another on top of careful evaluation of written work and time for one-on-one communication via e-mail when requested.

The downsides of online are many. Super high attrition rates are almost universal. Faculty have a hard time getting to know students, which limits  mentorship opportunities and makes writing letter of recomendation difficult. Pressure to increase class size leads to limited rigor and less writing, thus weakening the best part of online education. Online is particularly ill suited to entry level classes and remedial level work. Sadly that is where it is being pushed the hardest by its advocates in government and in the business world.

Recently on these pages, Alex Christensen posted an excellent essay on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), after the University of Minnesota announced plans to offer them. Generally, these classes are free (except for a nominal fee), open to anyone, regardless of status at the school, and don’t actually count toward graduation. However, the eventual aim is to use MOOCs at schools nationally to bring low-cost higher education to the masses while generating a profit for the businesses that deliver the courses. Some Minnesota policymakers want to lead this charge.

So here’s one concern: How would this impact those at community colleges and less selective universities when online teachers suggest that small online classes and frequent faculty contact is essential for student success? Duke University released a thorough study examining one of its MOOCs. Among the finds are the following:

COSTS—huge investment of time (600 total hours, 420 by the faculty member).
SUCCESS—over 11,000 enrolled and only 313 successfully completed the course.
WHO—two thirds of the students who enrolled had a BA or advanced degree.

Here are some questions Minnesota should ask before fully embarking on this major investment of time and money:

Will MOOCs create a two tiered system of education, with wealthy people still sending their children to elite colleges and MOOCs for everyone else?
What is higher education’s ultimate goal?
What is the difference between transferring information and getting an education?

What is the success rate of students by different demographic groups for MOOCs?
What are the demonstrated student learning outcomes for MOOCs?
What is the return on investment for Minnesota or a given university on a “business model” with limited revenue flow?

As we move forward with online education, it would be wise for policy makers to take advantage of the hundreds of Minnesota faculty who have been doing it successfully for many years: What have they learned?  What are the attrition rates, the success of existing online courses at achieving learning outcomes, and the success of online education among different demographic groups?

Like any pedagogical tool, online education can be used effectively or ineffectively. Before we jump into the brave new world of MOOCs, we should study and understand them. In the meantime, let’s reinvest in what we know works, affordable public higher education.