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Tech Mania Goes to College | The Nation

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Tech Mania Goes to College

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iTunes U is the current online educational behemoth, with 1 billion downloads and partners that include Oxford, Berkeley and MIT.

Nearly half a century ago, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore famously predicted that chip performance would double every other year. This breathtaking pace of change, unheard of in old-school industries, has characterized not only computer chips but high tech more generally. Such has been the case with MOOCs, the massive open online courses that have become topic number one in higher education.

About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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Resistance is growing, and with good reason—test mania delivers few benefits and often harms the students it’s meant to help. 

With a well-marked pathway from preschool through high school, the dense New Jersey city is a model educator for newcomers—and America at large.

While online courses have been around for years [see Jon Wiener, in this issue], until recently they’ve been the exclusive province of universities: such courses carry credit, charge tuition and are small enough to enable students to connect with their professors. MOOCs were promoted as the disruptive innovation that would make higher education better, cheaper and more widely available. Not only would they be free and disconnected from a university, but instead of enrolling 100 students, like a typical lecture course, they would enroll hundreds of thousands of students.

MOOC mania hit hard and fast, and hyperbole was the order of the day. Though the phrase itself was coined only in 2008, last year The New York Times  proclaimed 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” and MIT Technology Review described MOOCs in a headline as “The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years.” And the acronym made its debut this year as an entry in the Oxford Dictionaries Online. 

The free MOOCs, with their hundreds of thousands of students, are still going strong. But by 2013 the MOOC experiment had morphed into a business model—fee-based courses, far less massive and no longer open, that students could take for college credit.

California, the epicenter of high tech, is the locus of the action. The biggest for-profit start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, are located in Silicon Valley, and Governor Jerry Brown has been a vocal supporter. The ten-campus University of California was early on the scene; Berkeley has partnered with MIT and Harvard to create MOOCs for a worldwide audience; and San Jose State has made itself the test case for delivering MOOCs within the confines of a university.

Enthusiasts see MOOCs as presaging a utopia of affordable higher education for all; critics envision a brave new world in which robotic drills replace intellectual engagement; and skeptics dismiss MOOCs as merely a fad. Across the country, lawmakers and educators are eyeing the paradigm-changing story in California, seeking clues to the future of higher education.

The Lawmakers vs. the Professors

California used to be the world leader in public higher education, but no longer—the state has been defunding its universities for years. Sacramento, which contributed 27 percent of the University of California’s higher education budget in 2000, now provides just over 10 percent; and there have been comparable cutbacks in funding to the California State University and community college systems. Consequently, universities have been forced to sharply raise tuition, admit fewer students and slash courses. Many students, frozen out of the classes they need to graduate, must spend an extra year or more in college, and many drop out.

A year ago, Jerry Brown reached out to Sebastian Thrun, an ex–Stanford University professor turned entrepreneur, as well as the engineer who invented the driverless car and the co-founder of Udacity. “We need your help” was Brown’s message.

As a member of the University of California (UC) Board of Regents, Brown has pushed MOOCs with a messianic fervor. “What we’re talking about here is disruption—make no mistake about it,” he has said. For politicians who believe in silver bullets, MOOCs promise a cheap and effective way out of what Thrun labels the “crisis” in higher education. They are “a key part of the solution,” Brown asserted last January, unveiling a budget that earmarked $20 million for online university courses, split between the University of California and the California State University systems. 

In February, Darrell Steinberg, president pro tem of the State Senate, weighed in with a bill requiring colleges and universities to award credit for MOOCs in the fifty most overbooked introductory courses. “We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed,” he told The New York Times. Thrun was present for the announcement, and Steinberg made it clear that he wanted companies like Udacity to be MOOC providers. 

In California, a bill introduced by the Senate’s most powerful figure is typically a cinch to become law, and with the governor on board, the state seemed poised to transform the landscape of higher education. But the politicians hadn’t reckoned with the anger of the academics. 

With rare speed, University of California professors mobilized in opposition. “The faculty went ballistic,” recalls UC president Mark Yudof. Professors saw the measure as a triple threat: an unprecedented political encroachment, a challenge to academic standards, and a step toward privatizing higher education. Within forty-eight hours, the leaders of the system-wide faculty senate published a letter assailing the bill. “This was a shot heard round the world,” says Bob Powell, a UC Davis chemical engineering professor who chairs the faculty senate. Days later, the faculty of the massive California State University system joined the opposition chorus, as did the community college professors.

Steinberg later softened his bill to give professors outright approval of the courses, but the faculty weren’t appeased; and although the senator is regarded as a friend to labor, the faculty unions were also adamantly opposed. Confronted with such opposition, Steinberg surrendered. In June, a defanged version of the measure, which merely offers incentives to professors who design MOOCs, limped through the Senate and now languishes in the Assembly.

“I didn’t think things would become so ideological,” Steinberg told me, “but sometimes starting a conversation matters more than passing a bill.” In June, Brown vetoed his own budget proposal, because he’d become convinced that his plan had prompted soul-searching on campus. The $20 million would go to the universities, but without strings attached, since they now seemed inclined to develop online classes on their own.

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