...the University of California’s decision to hire former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as its president.... But sometimes her perspective is rather refreshing. Her latest comments come in reaction to the ambiguous plans of California Governor Jerry Brown to improve the state’s public universities through impersonal, computer-based college. At the most recent meeting of the UC Board of Regents he apparently argued that the university system’s administration needed to develop:
online education requiring no human interaction whatsoever.”
As he put it, what he wanted was:
a pure online course that, once it’s in the can, it’s almost perpetual motion....
That’s not really going to work, protests Napolitano. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:
Asked by PPIC President Mark Baldassare about UC initiatives in the online space, Napolitano moved promptly to separate fact from fantasy. She called the development of online courses merely “a tool for the toolbox.” For higher education, she said:
It’s not a silver bullet, the way it was originally portrayed to be. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and by the way if you do it right it doesn’t save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or a professor at some level....
As for preparing the courses:
if they’re really going to be top-quality, that’s an investment as well.
Taking aim at the dream that online learning might be most useful for students needing help in remedial courses in subjects like English and math, Napolitano said:
I think that’s false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them....
Why do students need to pay $33,000 a year to sit in a classroom? Well, because college isn’t just a delivery of a lecture. Actual learning is much more complicated that that, and usually requires people to be in a classroom. What’s more, the sort of online education that really does work is very pricey, and mostly works well in conjunction with real interaction.... Most of higher education will probably remain just as it’s always been, only with a few new gadgets, just as they’ve always been adding for as long as they’ve been around.... This is, as the article points out, exactly the opposite of what California Gov. Jerry Brown proposes, which is basically that we can greatly improve education attainment in California, and on the cheap, through online courses.
Not really, says Napolitano. Education is hard. And it’s expensive. It’s going to continue to be expensive, no matter who pays the cost.
The way I like to put it is like this: The ideal virtual-reality device for education is: a book--with the proper table of contents, the proper index, the proper graphs, the proper charts, the proper equations, etc. Sit me down with a courseload of material embodied in the physical form of a book, or, increasingly, in the virtual form of something Kindleized, whether it is Ezekiel Emanuel's Reinventing American Health Care or Thomas Piketty's Capital in the the 21st Century, and I do not need a course, a professor, a lecture, or a schedule. But then: I am a professor. I am a tenured professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley--and that's one of 300 in the 10 departments that claim to be in the top for economics departments worldwide. There are approximately 7,199,999,700 people in the world who are less good acquiring economics education from virtual-reality devices like books than I am.
Other people require not just the book considered as a virtual-reality subsystem device embodying the equivalent of a college course, But require considerably more in the form of human, institutional, and bricks and mortar infrastructure in order to support them in the process of effective education. Will the coming of virtual reality and other online educational techniques enable us to get by with less support that we have in the past? Will we be able to present online better virtual-reality subsystem devices for the bulk of potential learners who are not elite professors then the book has been? Probably. Will it be the real game changer that Jerry Brown hopes it will be? Highly unlikely...