The University of Florida has faced sweeping budget cuts from the State Legislature totaling 25 percent over three years. That is a main reason the university is moving aggressively to offer more online instruction. “We see this as the future of higher education,” said Joe Glover, the university provost.The NYT has this story on the growth of online education. Universities facing budget cuts can increase the size of classes by creating virtual seats--by moving the course to be partly or entirely online. Thus far, much of the growth has been with students who are actually on campus but filling out their schedule.
Of course, my gut reaction is that this is bad, really bad. Why? Well, it endangers my job, of course. That is, if we can have one prof teach thousands online, then we need fewer profs. Ok, aside from naked self-interest, why does this feel wrong? Well, when I went to college, I felt that I learned as much from my peers as my profs as we discussed the stuff outside of class. But if one does not have the shared in-class experience, then the spontaneous interactions as one starts walking outside of class do not happen. As importantly, some classes, such as the Spanish class discussed in the article, should not be taught online--they require student participation to learn how to speak, listen, think in a foreign language (as someone who failed to learn several languages, I should know?).
On the other hand, I do teach a 600 student Intro to International Relations class. I do allow for questions while I am blathering on, but that experience is just a tad more interactive than the online version. What difference does it make to students to be in a huge lecture hall or watching online? I am not sure. I do allow my course to be recorded--the audio portion, that is. So, students can blow off my lectures and listen somewhere else. But I recently had the choice of being videotaped or not, and I chose not. Why? In part because I don't want to be tied to a fixed spot at the podium but like to move back and forth. In part because I do want their butts in the seats, and providing video would probably mean that fewer students do show up. And perhaps more than a smidge of vanity. The last time I saw video of myself lecturing, I obsessed about what the back of my head looked like (yes, I am going bald back there). Plus there is the occasional stumble as I mis-step as I pace into the aisles/stairs on either side of the podium. That is, it is one thing to look like a klutz/dork in front of 500 plus students, but to have it taped and stored for however long, yuck.
More importantly, I do think that even in a 600 person class, the gathering and shared experience can lead to fruitful exchanges, that college (or university as they call it up here) is a special experience encompassing both planned and unplanned encounters, that there is a dynamic density that leads to all kinds of interesting things (including finding mates for the short and/or long term), that moving the experience to online will diminish and alter the experience in ways that we can only partly anticipate.
Of course, the really problematic thing is that this move just makes it easier for states to cut back even further on higher education. And that is bad, not just because of my job and the employment prospects of my graduate students, but because universities are engines of growth. They are the classic case of government spending creating multiplier effects. The valleys around UCSD are covered in biotech, computer tech, and other firms that employ lots of people, generate lots of tax revenue and pushed our lives into the 21st century before it even started. And that is not the only place that happens. If we want to have a dynamic economy, we should be increasing funding of higher education, not cutting it. Online education is all about cutting funds and raising revenues by increasing enrollment beyond the capacity to seat all of the students. So, it is a short term solution that will have long term consequences--bad ones.
Again, I am biased because online education does threaten my enterprise just a bit. Good thing I have tenure.