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Tech Mania Goes to College | The Nation

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Tech Mania Goes to College

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The Failure of ‘Virtual UC’

Online fever is nothing new in California. In 2009, Christopher Edley, dean of the Berkeley Law School and confidant of UC president Mark Yudof, wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed pitching “a cyber-campus devoted to awarding online degrees to UC-eligible students.” Edley envisioned the virtual campus as a classic case of doing well by doing good, expanding opportunities while raising boatloads of money, but UC professors disdained it as a power grab. 

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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“The dream of the eleventh campus is dead,” Edley acknowledged. In response, the university shifted gears. Instead of dictating from the top, it’s now relying on the faculty for bottom-up, campus-by-campus innovation, and that strategy is working. This summer, University of California faculty were invited to compete for a chunk of UC’s $10 million share in state funding for online initiatives, and now they’re off and running. 

Berkeley couldn’t wait for the lumbering UC system to settle on an online strategy. As the home of one of the world’s highest-ranked computer science programs, “we had to do something with MOOCs,” says computer science professor Armando Fox, who heads the campus’s online initiative. “We couldn’t be left out of the game.” 

Courted by several MOOC-makers, Berkeley opted to partner with MIT and Harvard in edX, a nonprofit, rather than one of the for-profit companies. “Our philosophies are more closely aligned,” says Fox. “We didn’t want to choose between making money for the university and what’s right for our students. As a nonprofit, we just have to be successful enough.” While Berkeley currently offers only computer science and statistics MOOCs, a campus-wide competition has drawn extensive interest. 

The edX contract was negotiated by a handful of administrators and engineering professors, bypassing the faculty senate, which usually reviews deals of this magnitude. “The chancellor kept the cards close to his vest,” observes English professor Colleen Lye, a MOOC skeptic, “and that worries professors.” 

“MOOCs were sold as just a way to save money,” Fox responds, “and that’s the wrong way to think about them—they’re really twenty-first-century textbooks.” 

No one anticipated what may be the most consequential—and positive—impact of the new technology: professors are discussing how they teach, something that seldom happens at research universities like Berkeley. “These conversations are highlighting the importance of having an effective instructor; all of a sudden we’re thinking about ‘quality control’ to weed out lousy teaching,” says Fox. Lye puts it differently: “I hope that the MOOC frenzy can focus faculty attention on teaching and learning, rather than being something that’s foisted on us.” 

Learning From Walmart

While the media fixate on world-class universities like Berkeley and Stanford, the overwhelming majority of America’s undergraduates attend schools like San Jose State (SJSU). Designated by the California Master Plan for Higher Education as a second-tier university, focused more on teaching than research, SJSU admits three-quarters of its applicants. More than half the freshmen cannot handle college-level writing or math and must take remedial classes. Fewer than 10 percent of all freshmen earn a degree within four years. 

This is a nationwide problem—and there’s a cost-effective, low-tech answer. In a recent study, Columbia Teachers College economist Henry Levin concluded that giving vulnerable students lots of hand-holding and ample financial aid—the same kind of “high-touch” support that undergraduates in top-ranked colleges expect—nearly doubled graduation rates. It’s a smart investment: because the program prepares more students for decent jobs, it generates a three- to fourfold return for taxpayers. But most states, including California, are too shortsighted to foot the bill. 

Mohammad Qayoumi, SJSU’s president and an electrical engineer by training, is predisposed to technological solutions. In the 2013 white paper “Are We Innovation-Ready?”, Qayoumi envisions universities like SJSU delivering a high-quality, affordable education that leads to a good job. In Qayoumi’s model university, freshmen and sophomores would have a heavy diet of online courses. In the more advanced “flipped” courses, students would come to class having completed the online assignment and prepared for problem-based learning. Juniors and seniors would spend considerable time tackling community-based fieldwork projects. What’s more, because students would be off-campus or online much of the time, the university could increase its enrollment without embarking on a building binge.

San Jose State has made itself the petri dish for new technologies, eager to experiment with online offerings. A fall 2012 edX circuits and electronics course showcased the potential of MOOCs. This was a flipped course and not a classic MOOC—students completed the MOOC assignments at home, devoting class time to group projects. The results were remarkable. More than 90 percent passed, compared with fewer than 60 percent in the traditional course. Skeptics pointed out that students in the flipped course may have done better because they spent more time overall on the course than their classroom counterparts. But in an era when undergraduates devote ever-fewer hours to their studies, whatever engages them should be reckoned a good thing.

This past January, three Udacity introductory math MOOCs—a key feature of Qayoumi’s “innovation-ready” university—were announced to great fanfare. At a press conference attended by Jerry Brown, Sebastian Thrun contended that the initiative could “change the life of Californians” by making higher education cheaper and more widely available. These were true MOOCs—students had only Udacity-trained online tutors, not professors, to rely on—and the results proved calamitous. Just 29 percent passed the Udacity remedial math course, compared with 80 percent in the face-to-face class, and the gap was nearly as wide in the algebra course. Udacity had pinned its highest hopes on the statistics course, but only 51 percent passed, versus 74 percent who passed the in-class version. In July, the university decided to put the experiment on hold. “My job is to test new ideas, not run with the hype,” says SJSU’s provost, Ellen Junn.

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