Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported a presentation by Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California system, with the headline “UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze.” While the shortcomings of these modern correspondence courses are apparent to most veteran teachers and professors, this was the first time that a major university leader has dared proclaim that the digital emperor has no clothes. And Napolitano detailed her objections.
According to the LA Times, in front of an audience of 500, she proclaimed “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.”
Napolitano challenged the assertion that online courses might serve students needing remedial math or English: “I think that's false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them.”
She likewise pointed to the growing evidence that when students are shut off from direct interaction with faculty, that they're “less happy and less engaged.”
The LA Times placed her comments in the context of the recent California disaster with giving every K-12 student an iPad: “A good example is Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy's misbegotten iPad program, which threatens to saddle the L.A. schools with overpriced, obsolescent tablet computers that leave students uneducated.”
They also reported on another disaster that had just occurred next door: “The emblematic case is that of San Jose State University, which partnered with Udacity, a Silicon Valley start-up that [California Governor] Brown had talked up, on several introductory online courses. As was learned last July, more than half the enrolled students flunked, and the university had to put the program on hold for retooling. The revised program has shown better results, but that's only after considerable human outreach and interaction. The experience only underscores what Napolitano said: Online learning is no silver bullet.”
This craziness over online courses appears to primarily be an obsession and bragging point for about
one-third of higher education administrators. This difference in attitude between the teaching professionals and administrators obsessed with marketing and branding is evident in the recently released “2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology,” a 44-page report that can be accessed at www.insidehighered.com.
There is still low regard for online courses among faculty. The findings of this annual survey conducted by Gallup® should give many students pause in taking an online course, let alone pursuing a whole degree program delivered online.
“Few faculty members (9 percent) strongly agree that online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses.” However, 36 percent of technology administrators strongly agreed.
Of course, universities hire technology officers to make the delivery of these courses possible. You would expect that most would support online as a superior method—and you would be wrong. Across eight specific areas measured, the majority of university technology officers did not support the view that “online courses are of better quality than in-person courses.” And “less than half of faculty and technology administrators strongly agree that their institution offers instructors strong support for online learning....”
Only one-sixth of university faculty strongly support their university’s expansion of online course offerings. And “most faculty do not feel that they have been appropriately involved with decision making surrounding the expansion of online course offerings.”
Napolitano’s exposé that the online emperor has no clothes does not come as a surprise. The University of California–Berkeley has an ongoing faculty policy of not accepting transfer online courses in the performing arts or lab sciences. To claim to teach acting, music performance, and lab skills online defies commonsense. But having a university administrator who has commonsense and is willing to speak out—well, that is a surprise.