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

June 21, 2012 at 8:05 am 22 comments

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?

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22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Valerie  |  June 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I’ve been following this situation pretty closely, including the resignation of prominent computer scientist Bill Wulf from UVa’s CS Dept.

    I too think the jury is still out on the educational merits of online education. But as far as I know, no traditional university has made money on online education. There’s the for-profit model ala University of Phoenix which heavily uses online education, but I don’t think any traditional university such as Stanford or MIT has generated any substantial revenue from online education. Indeed, they offer the courses for free.

    In this era of decreased state support for universities, it’s very hard to make a monetary argument for online education. I found this article to be very thought provoking (despite its source): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-karpf/uva-boards-lazy-business-_b_1612319.html

    • 2. dennisfrailey  |  June 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      I have to disagree. I’ve taught on line at Southern Methodist University’s engineering school (mostly graduate level) for over 40 years. Not only has it been profitable but it is probably the main reason the engineering school has survived. SMU is a private school. In the last 40 years a number of state-supported competitors have cropped up in this region, all with more competitive tuition levels because they are all selling their product well below cost, underwritten by the state legislature. How did SMU survive? Because we were serving a new customer base that could not attend college in the traditional, on campus mode. SMU also did other innovative things such as teaching courses at corporate sites.

      I’ve noted that most of those who comment on distance education have not been doing it for very long. Even the ACM panel seems to have had few participants who have been involved for very long. And many of their criticisms are based on not having truly embraced the technology, the kind of student it attracts, and the changes in the academic culture that it takes to truly take advantage of it. Those of us who have been doing distance education for a long time tend to find many of the comments to be inconsistent with our experience.

      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  July 1, 2012 at 2:25 am

        Dennis, we have little data on the students in Udacity and Coursera courses, but from what we have, I believe that they are different courses than the kinds of on-line courses that Universities have been doing for the last decades — and that they draw yet a *different* kind of audience. I’m not convinced that Udacity and Coursera are significantly drawing from “a new customer base that could not attend college in the traditional, on campus mode.” They seek to reach a global audience, and to serve the developing world, but it looks to me like they’re mostly serving people in the developed world who already have degrees — but again, that’s based on scant evidence. I do believe that on-line courses offered at SMU and other schools were serving an alternate customer base, and that that’s an important base to serve.

        President Sullivan is worrying about serving her existing customer base. That’s not a bad thing — they do need to be served. Online courses at SMU and on Udacity and Coursera serve important customer bases, too. The point that I see Turadg making is that all of these are needed, because we need a variety of mechanisms to serve a variety of customer bases. The Board of Visitors wanted Sullivan to move on-line, and they didn’t realize that that was a different customer base, serving a different set of needs, with different economics.

        The post I was quoting here was raising a different point. What if MOOCs steal the revenue stream from the traditional universities, drying up the traditional places, and leaving no place for their customer base to be served?

  • 4. richde  |  June 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I have no way of knowing — and I would not want my remarks to be interpreted as taking sides in a fight that is not mine — but part of the problem with Sullivan’s disconnect with her BOV may be inferred from the way she talks about online education. She calls it “distance education”.

    Her critics (inside and outside) have from the beginning of her tenure at UVA talked about a general aura of cluelessness when it comes to what technology might do for education. In 2010 for example she proposed “flash lectures” aimed apparently at duping undergraduates into thinking something interesting was going to happen.

    Dave Patterson has it right. Much of this discussion simply doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen, and it seems to me that a president has to be prepared to say what their institution is going to do about it. One response is “nothing”. Another is “we’re all in — betting the farm.” Neither extreme is the right one for an elite school, but surely some response is needed.

    • 5. dennisfrailey  |  June 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      I agree that Dave Patterson was right. And having been knee deep in distance education since long before “on line” was the prevailing technology, I observe that if you make a serious effort to embrace both the technology and the kind of student being served by this form of education, you can do wonderful things. As I see it, the problem with the UVA president was that she was only able to see the traditional university model and could not bring herself to open up to a very different world. Such resistance to change is a common human characteristic, especially in academia, but as Patterson said, it will change.

      We need to learn to embrace it.

  • 6. Ian Bogost  |  June 21, 2012 at 10:48 am

    As long as McLuhan’s name has come up, I think if he were here, he’d remind us that media have effects on our personal and social experience, and that we can’t fully see those effects in the present. Many call McL a technological determinist, but that’s not fair: he clearly believed that we can make adjustments–thus his call for electric media, the global village, and so forth. In fact, it’s the technolibertarians who are the determinists, with their cries of “this is happening with or without us.”

    McLuhan was fond of reminding us that artists have “antennae” that help them see the future in a different way from others. That’s pretty far removed from today’s beliefs that business knows all.

  • 7. Online education: It’s going to happen - reestheskin  |  June 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

    […] » An interesting post and responses over at computing education. The prompt was what was happened to Teresa Sullivan, but one aspect of this whole debate is about […]

  • 8. Cecily  |  June 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    A few thoughts:
    At least here in Utah, online education isn’t “going” to happen, it already “has happened” in many major spheres. BYU has had pretty good distance education courses for a while to try to help families who have to leave the states for church assignments, and the state of Utah has offered electronic high school classes for real credit that are taxpayer funded for several years as well. In addition, a couple years ago, the state passed funding that allows any accredited secondary school to offer online classes to any student in the state. While many schools have just licensed online curriculum from k12 schools, this essentially means that anybody could partner with a school and get taxpayer dollars for education if they can claim their offering is primarily online; they can also recruit any student in the state. Our GE computer science class at SUU is offered roughly half online and half face to face. I am not sure which usually fills first. I could go on, but won’t. It is important to note that with the exception of the BYU stuff which is privately funded, the rest of these examples are tax payer funded, and all of them, including the BYU stuff are for “REAL” credit that will actually help them graduate with a real degree, an important distinction from the “fluff” credit that MITx grants that will not help them graduate with a real MIT degree. In most cases students are required to have their exams proctored, and that helps to curb the cheating.

    As for community colleges, it seems to me highly unlikely that some MITx course or any other course taught by any aforementioned panelists is going to replace them. I have carefully considered the idea of adopting online curriculum for those courses in some of the courses I teach. I spend a lot of time developing curriculum, and it would be great to reduce it. However, every time I consider such a thing, I conclude that my students (who at SUU are somewhat more advanced than a community college student) need more scaffolding than what the online course provides–more little examples and more feedback. If I were teaching at a community college, they’d need even more scaffolding, and when I was teaching at a title one high school, they needed even more scaffolding. Although I have had an isolated handful of students in each of these settings that were MITx curriculum ready, they were definitely the isolated exception rather than the rule.

    I think the real question is how will the politics change how the money flows. Ideally, it will break up some of the monopolies and give students more choices– when I was in high school I had one, horrible choice for AP chem. An online option probably would’ve been better for me, but didn’t exist at the time. With electronic options, I suspect most Utah high school students have four or five options now(consolidating from the districts that are offering the same curriculum as “different” offerings for funding purposes). .

    I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I’ve concluded that some subjects definitely cost more money to teach(PE is almost certainly more expensive than math, especially when you factor in the cost of the gym), and some students cost more money to teach(a student whose parents double as tutors is much cheaper to educate than a student who has no reliable adults in their life). The idea that things are not inherently equal is not a popular political idea here in America, so this could get interesting.

    • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm

      The BYU online courses for high school students are frequently recommended here in California (by guidance counselors at brick-and-mortar schools and by consultant teachers at home schools). The consensus I’ve seen from those who’ve actually taken them are that they are fairly low quality, low level courses—better than a lot of rural high schools could manage, but not up to the level of taking a similar course at a community college.

      • 10. Cecily  |  June 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm

        I took BYU Poli Sci 110 online in high school to get around the BYU American Heritage requirement and satisfy a high school graduation requirement where I was off-track. I moved from CA to UT in high school, and we had different requirements across states. That course was certainly not as rigorous as an AP class, but was probably roughly comparable to the classes I took as SLCC(Salt Lake Community College). to finish my teaching license after I finished my PhD. I suspect the high school courses are more dilute. You have to remember that BYU’s primary audience for these courses are not BYU students or future BYU students; rather, they are aimed at families with international church assignments who often have children across the academic spectrum. This kind of reverts to my point that the community colleges really don’t have much competition to fear from the panelists– they are catering to VERY different audiences. I don’t think Ruth’s Chris is going to put McDonalds out of business any time soon 😉

  • 11. beki70  |  June 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    The great thing about technology, especially in use, is its unpredictability. That’s missing from some of the arguments I see about online higher education which seem confident in that it will happen (without asking *what* precisely will happen). One question that seems open to me is just how many people really want online education who currently don’t get it. How many people really won’t come whatever we give them… 🙂 Another question, how many barriers exist? We talk about it as if its obviously going to be a global phenomenon, but what are the pre-reqs? — not just prior education, but also access to infrastructure, collisions of values around modes of delivery and assessment… The fact that there’s a lot of optimism around online education right now reminds me of the optimism of various other technology trends, who can forget the Information Superhighway or NREN. And in the end, we’ll look back and think, well that was surprising, because people will always surprise us.

  • 12. UT Educator  |  June 25, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Having worked in the distance education community within the University of Texas System for many years, I can tell you that Terry Sullivan has a deep knowledge and understanding of online learning in higher education. The University of Texas System TeleCampus (UT TeleCampus) the highly-regarded distance education entity of the 15 campuses within the UT System, reported to and was supported by Terry Sullivan during her tenure at the System office (it, unfortunately, was closed by her successor).

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  • 22. Comparing MOOCs and books « Computing Education Blog  |  December 7, 2012 at 8:26 am

    […] just came back from a visit to Stanford where John Mitchell, vice-provost for on-line education at Stanford, explained to me the value of MOOCs over textbooks.  Textbooks don’t provide much of a […]


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