Online education: “It’s doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen”

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 what exactly online education is good for and how will it affect the traditional higher education providers.

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.”

Rich DeMillo ( in the responses) sees things clearly.

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.

It is going to happen, and it is happening. But does it increase the value proposition for  students, or does it just allow universities (and others) to provide even less of value, whilst claiming that the standards are as high as they have even been?

This leads into another insightful post at MotherJones.The quotes and argument below are in response to an article from Kevin Drum.

A professor friend of mine with experience at both private universities and the University of California emailed me a response to my post a couple of days ago about funding of higher education. My description of public vs. private universities, he says, might have been accurate 30 or 40 years ago, but not anymore:


Dear Kevin:

Whatever the merits of your plan to wean private universities off government support and concentrate our efforts on shoring up public universities — and there’s something to it — I have to take issue with something you wrote in it:

UCLA provides undergraduates with an education that’s just as good as Harvard, and the country might be a better place if we all faced up to that and took Harvard and the rest of our super-elite universities off the pedestal we’ve placed them on.

Based on wide experience in both private and public universities, I’d have to say that this isn’t true. People who think it is true probably aren’t aware of just how much public universities have cut, or else aren’t aware just how intensive an education private universities provide.

Further on he/she writes that the issue is that to produce good learning you need to provide intensive small group teaching (that is where the value is), and:

It does mean that, in the current budget situation, pretty much any private college will provide a much, much better education in the liberal arts and social sciences than any public university — except the rare ones that operate like liberal arts colleges, like William & Mary or SUNY-New Paltz.

This wasn’t always true. (In 1970, Berkeley spent 70 percent as much per student, from all funding sources, as Stanford. As of a few years ago the figure was 30 percent and now I bet it’s more like 20 percent. With those numbers, there’s no way that the private-public distinction is a matter of fancy gyms and climbing walls.) I wish it weren’t true now.

So,  drawing these two topics together, one question is what value does a traditional university bring to student learning. Yes, you can scale lectures online. The OU has been doing this well for decades (and a lot more). The question is how well this model copes in comparison with traditional small group teaching — but then this assumes that modern Universities are still doing this and, there is considerable evidence (certainly in medicine) that they are not. So, a rush to online platforms becomes a way to save money, increase fee income and provide little of quality, because the individual institutions continue in a silent conspiracy that there standards are as high as they have always been.

The alternative optimistic view  is that the online technology really is going to shift the cost/benefit curve. Something is going to happen.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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