Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Online education and courses

JUST as the University of California prepares to announce its first group of fully online courses for its undergraduates, the California State University announced this week that it, too, will begin to expand its computer based options for its 412,000 students.It already offers degrees in 63 disciplines entirely online most of them in master's degree programs.

For years now, especially early adopters have been calling what's sometimes known as distance learning the future of education. And certainly, in some as yet unknown way, it is or a big part of it.The situation is mainly technology-driven. Fifteen years ago, when the Web was younger and broadband access far more limited, it would have been extremely hard logistically to have anything like a real classroom experience online.Now, with high-speed Internet access commonplace, with laptops and smart phones and iPads, with users more at ease with the kinds of video images

we see on Skype, it's not just early adopters who are comfortable with the idea.Just as companies and organizations that formerly sent a lot of staff members to meetings have begun to see the cost- and time-saving abilities of video conferencing, so educators are right to explore all the online possi-bilities.And yet educators are also right to be skeptical. There is simply no replacing or overestimating the importance of traditional social interaction on a college campus. By no means should cyber-ed ever fully replace college or graduate-school education.

And professors have very specific fears. San Francisco Chronicle education writer Nanette Asimov reported this week on a war of words between a Cal State Long Beach prof and CSU Vice Chancellor Ben Quillian.Teri Yamada, an Asian Studies professor at CSU Long Beach, wanted to get involved in the process early on.Too early, they were told.I respectfully ask for your patience,Quillian said.I deeply understand the importance of patience,Yamada replied. Unfortunately, I believe that our concern is more the issue of trust.Cheating is one concern of professors. So is what they call the Walmartization of CSU, citing concerns that some classes would be purchased off the shelf in pre-packaged form, as some community colleges are doing.

At the UCs, the administration has guaranteed faculty that won't happen. Even so, UC Berkeley profs showed their skepticism about online education earlier this year when very few of them even bothered to submit proposals for online courses even though they were eligible for grants in the tens of thousands of dollars if they did so.Twenty-six UC courses were originally expected to be available this coming January. Instead, six will debut.Change is rough. Academia is as hidebound in its resistance to change as other organizations or more so. Online learning is definitely part of the mix for oureducational future. But we have to keep the humans in the humanities. And the sciences. And everything else. A mixture of online lectures and seminars with all hands on deck sounds to us like the best mix for higher education in the online age.

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