March 28, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 1

Sound Bites vs. Substance

Over the last few weeks, several bills have been introduced in the California Legislature aimed at compelling the state’s colleges and universities to produce more graduates at a lower cost. These bills range from mandating faculty to employ online instruction to endorsing a particular online phenomenon known as “MOOCs” (that is, massive open online courses), to promoting the “10K BA” (that is, a bachelor’s degree from the CSU costing a student no more than $10,000). These bills have generated a lot of heat in the state’s higher education community, from people including CSU Chancellor Tim White, who characterized the 10K BA as little more than a “sound bite.”

Notwithstanding important questions—and doubts—about the expertise of our legislators in matters pertaining to student learning and curriculum development, what we are seeing is reflective of a national, even global, movement to improve access, lower costs, and move more students through to degree completion. These are all noble goals, of course. But let’s not assume that this is the whole story.

First, there is the matter of the substance of degrees that are largely accomplished through online instruction and an accelerated pace, both elements which are crucial to the 10K BA proposition. To put it bluntly, we need to be concerned not just with credits earned, but with material learned. And even so, learning means not just information accumulated, but knowledge acquired. This was first articulated by John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends, when he indicted our national educational system and learning assessment practices for producing a society “drowning in data, but starving for knowledge.”

Second, beyond what should be an obvious point that there is more to learning than passing a test, online or otherwise, we need to confront the increasing evidence that online learning is not for everyone. Recent studies from the states of Washington and Virginia and from Columbia University, for example, reveal huge attrition rates in online courses (as much as 90 percent in some highly touted MOOCs). Moreover, these rates disproportionately affected both underprepared and community college students, adding further discouragement to their college degree aspirations and costing them precious dollars for no return.

Third, and I think most important for Chico State, there are advantages to a place-based educational experience that cannot be replicated in a virtual environment. Much of this focuses on the recognition that learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. It occurs through a myriad of learning experiences: peer interactions; the everyday exposure to the diversity of people, cultures, and ideas on a campus; hands-on learning and research opportunities with faculty; and campus and community engagements. The two alcohol-focused summits we have had on our campus this semester are just two examples of an opportunity for student engagement and leadership—and learning—that would hardly be the same online.

Fourth, a significant number of college-bound students, at this particular stage of their intellectual, emotional, and social development, need the structure and other elements of a physical place for study, self-discovery, and human interaction. The latter may be the most important point of all. The shortcomings of online instruction underscore this in the attrition rates and poor performance of students who need close contact with instructors in order to succeed. This is the case even in low-enrollment online courses, despite design efforts to compensate for the absence of a true face-to-face experience.

But there is more than the transmittal of course content that reveals the difference between online and in-person instruction in the interaction between faculty and students. This is because those human qualities so essential to effective teaching and true learning, because they are so critical to trust between faculty and students—kindness, enthusiasm, decency, civility, personal integrity, and intellectual honesty, just to name a few—are very difficult to convey online. It is very telling that the online courses which seem to succeed the best in terms of student learning and satisfaction are so-called hybrid courses, which blend online instruction with a face-to-face component. We are seeing this on our campus.

Let me be very clear. Yes, I strongly believe that there are inherent advantages and qualities to a place-based college experience that cannot be replicated well, if at all, through online degree programs. This, however, does not discount the value of such programs. But it does mean that there is a place and role for both models as our country meets the educational needs of an increasingly diverse population of college-degree seekers.

Bill Gates recently said that “College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based.” As provocative and thought provoking such a view is, it reflects a narrow, simplistic imperative that fails to acknowledge the strength of American higher education in the diversity of its institutions and educational models. It would be just as irresponsible for us to reject online instruction out of hand as it would be for a legislator­—or even Bill Gates—to impose this approach on us.

Paul J. Zingg