Archive for June 21, 2012

E-mails show UVa board wanted a big online push: McLuhan rolls over in grave

Released emails suggest that one of the reasons that the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors ousted President Teresa Sullivan was that she was resistant to online education:

Various theories have been traded among UVa-watchers in the last 10 days about the source of conflict between Sullivan and the board, and the e-mail records suggest that online education may have been among them. In her statement on the day the board announced Sullivan’s departure, Dragas used language similar to some of the columns that were being shared among board members, saying “We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.”

Sullivan is not quoted at length in the e-mail files that were released, but one from an alumnus/donor to Kington says that Sullivan provided a “pedestrian” answer to a question about how UVa was embracing the online education revolution. Sullivan is not responding to press inquiries at this time, but sources familiar with discussions she has had on distance education said that she viewed it as an important trend, but had expressed skepticism about the idea that it was a quick fix to solving financial problems, and that she viewed distance education as having the potential to cost a lot of money without delivering financial gains. Sources also said she viewed distance education as an issue on which faculty input was crucial.

via E-mails show U.Va. board wanted a big online push | Inside Higher Ed.

I’m just back from the ACM Education Council meeting, where Mehran Sahami put together a stellar panel on the topic of on-line education (also covered in LisaK’s blog):

  • Woodie Flowers (MIT) who supports on-line training but believes that real education likely requires some “presence.” I mentioned previously that he’s been critical of MIT’s edX initiative.  He emphasized the need to have higher quality educational software, using Avatar as his exemplar.
  • Candice Thille (Carnegie Mellon University) who heads OLI and had the best research support for the forms of online education that they’re developing.  She started with a great quote from Herb Simon, “Improvement in post-secondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity.”  She emphasized the team approach they use to build their software.
  • John Mitchell (Stanford) who leads the online education effort there.  He led the charge in implying enormous changes for higher education.  “Will community colleges survive? How? Will college teaching follow the path of journalism?”
  • Peter Norvig (head of research at Google) who co-taught the 100K student on-line AI course was honest and pragmatic.  He started on this because he wanted to do more than a book.  He felt that the students really felt a “personal connection” with him, but when pressed, agreed that we don’t actually have much evidence of that.  He sees the biggest role of these online courses is for updating skills and re-training.  He says that the technology just isn’t good enough yet.  For example, the current tools don’t really respond to feedback — they’re linear experiences with no remediation or mechanisms for providing missing background knowledge.
  • Dave Patterson (Berkeley) who taught a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course) on programming Web services. He was honest about the limitations of MOOCs, but still convinced that this is the beginning of the end for existing higher education.  He pointed out that he also had a 90% dropout rate.  He was the first MOOC teacher I’ve heard admit to “unbounded, worldwide cheating.”  They were going to use plagiarism detection software, just to see how much cheating was going on, but they didn’t need to.  Large numbers of answers were “bit identical.”

One of the most important points for me was when Eric Roberts of Stanford pushed back against the flood of support for MOOCs, pointing out the costs of on-line education in terms of their impact on small schools, on general (especially legislators’) perception of the role of higher-education, and on what we teach (e.g., the media might encourage us to teach what we can easily do in these on-line forms, as opposed to what we think is important).  “Does ‘free’ wipe-out other things with demonstrable value?”  Dave Patterson responded saying, “It doesn’t matter.  It’s going to happen.”

I thought I heard McLuhan rolling over in his grave.  “Media choices don’t matter?!?”

But as I thought about it some more, it was less obvious to me which side McLuhan would fall on.  On the one hand, McLuhan (in Understanding Media) argued that we should be aware of the implications of our media, of how our media change us.  That view of McLuhan suggests that he would side with Eric, in thinking through the costs of the media, and he would be furious that Dave was unwilling to consider those implications.  On the other hand, McLuhan would agree with Dave that media do obsolete some things (even things we value) while enhancing other things, and these media effects do just “happen.”  Are we as a society powerless to choose media, to avoid those with effects that we dislike?

I see what happened at UVa to be about this question exactly.  It’s not obvious to me that the MOOC efforts are better than existing higher education, in terms of reach into society, in terms of effectiveness for learning, and in terms of constructing the society we want.  They serve a need, but they don’t replace colleges (as of yet).  Teresa Sullivan’s concerns expressed above are well-founded, and she was wise to be hesitant.  On the other hand, as Dave Patterson said, “It’s going to happen.”  The UVa President may have been run-over because she didn’t hop on the train fast enough for her Board of Visitors.  Can we consider and choose our media, based on the implications we want, or must we accept the new media as inevitable and get pushed out of the way if we don’t embrace those media — even though those media could possibly destroy the institutions we believe serve an important need?

June 21, 2012 at 8:05 am 22 comments

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