How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It

Today, the largest university system in the world, the California State University system, announced a pilot for $150 lower-division online courses at one of its campuses — a move that spells the end of higher education as we know it. Lower-division courses are the financial backbone of many part-time faculty and departments (especially the humanities). As someone who has taught large courses at a University of California, I can assure readers that my job could have easily been automated. Most of college–the expansive campuses and large lecture halls–will crumble into ghost towns as budget-strapped schools herd students online.

[Note: at the end of this article, I offer a timeline for how this all comes crumbling down]

Traditionally, droves of unprepared teenagers were crammed into the faceless lecture halls of lower-division and remedial courses. “They graduate from high school, but they cannot pass our elementary math and English placement tests,” said Ellen N. Junn, provost and vice president for the campus piloting the new initiative, San Jose State University. More than 50% of entering students don’t meet basic requirements.

But, even after nearly tripling tuition in a decade and increasing class sizes, dwindling teaching assistants and course offerings have failed the ever-increasing flood of fresh new undergraduates.

Indeed, with all the billions of dollars and academic mindshare spent educating the youth, less than half, 48%, even graduate from SJSU.

Fed up, Gov. Jerry Brown has given his blessing to popular online course platform, Udacity, to partner with San Jose State University for the ultra-low cost online lower-division and remedial classes. The tiny pilot of algebra and statistics courses will be limited to just 300 students, half from SJSU and half from high schools and community colleges.

The California Teachers Association has yet to take a stance on the pilot, but at least one faculty member suspects the announcement was timed to subvert opposition. “My personal opinion is that it’s not by accident that this is being announced at a time when most faculty are not on campus, but I have no evidence for that,” said Sociology Professor, Preston Rudy, “I don’t know enough about Udacity to take any position, but over all, I know the university is concerned about who will teach courses if they go online, who has control, and whether they will be university employees.”

While faculty worry about the quality of online courses, the truth is that our education system, primarily designed to test rote memorization, is built to scale and be independent of teacher interaction. A review of research by the Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

More recently, a pilot of MIT and Harvard’s joint online educational initiative, EdX, found that blending SJSU classes with world-class online lectures reduced the number of students who received a C or lower by 31%.

In other words, computers can–and have–successfully replaced teachers.

To boost retention, the National Science Foundation-funded project will offer a range of mentoring and monitoring services, including encouraging emails should students get stuck on a particular assignment.

Online courses aren’t entirely new, but it’s difficult to underestimate just how powerful the California higher education system is. After former University of California President, Richard Atkinson, threatened to drop the SAT from admissions requirements, the College Board rushed to revamp the test for the entire country only a year after the threat. However goes California’s education system, so goes the nation.

If I had to predict how the fallout of this pilot will go, here’s my timeline:

  1. Pilot succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

The impact of Udacity’s program is a rose or thorn depending on how much value you put into higher education. If you fall into investor Peter Thiel’s camp, who famously funds young entrepreneurs to skip college, then this is good news, as it might funnel more young people into vocational careers, save them thousands in debt, and expand educational access. However, If you fall into the camp of Berkeley researcher, Vivek Wadwha, then one of the most important parts of a young person’s education, face-to-face college interactions, will be lost. Either way, change is coming.