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California dreamin': The Age of MOOCs is here

January 21, 2013

You might know that I had an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education three months ago that addressed the impact of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the lower half of the student population (I’ve posted the free unabridged version of that article here). In that article, I warn that state governments will eventually combine forces with major technology companies to promote the use of MOOCs as a way to cut costs for educating remedial students.

Well, that day came sooner than I thought. Five days ago, this New York Times headline announced the arrival of a new day: “California to Give Web Courses a Big Trial.” According to the article, a pilot program of online courses at San Jose State will be administered by MOOC giant Udacity. Though initially only be offered by one school, the goal from the outset is to offer such courses to hundreds of thousands of students throughout the state at a much lower cost per student. The person behind this move is Governor Jerry Brown:

California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pushing state universities to move more aggressively into online education, approached the company [Udacity] to come up with a technological solution for what has become a vexing challenge for the state.

The vexing challenge is that 50% of students entering the California State University System cannot meet basic requirements. But the real challenge behind the challenge is that California has run out of money and needs to find ways to cut costs. So in the name of saving money, they will convince themselves that online learning can improve their education system. There is a lot of big money banking on the idea that struggling students can learn more looking at a screen than they can sitting in the presence of a flesh-and-blood teacher and fellow students.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun would not disclose how much they are being paid by the state of California for their participation in this pilot program. Let’s just say a bunch. The school that will be the guinea pig for the program is San Jose State. But fear not, they will receive funds from the Federal Gov’t’s National Science Foundation.

So there is money flying all over the place. The rich are getting richer, and the poor students are getting a poorer education. As I said in my original article, there is too much momentum being created by too many powerful people to stop this train now.

You can rest assured that Udacity and Jerry Brown will find a way to make this program appear successful. Think about it: if you are trying to win a huge client’s business, you are going to put your best foot forward. But any success they have with these test programs for remedial online learning will not be “real world” success. Because in the real world, struggling students need the immediacy of caring teachers, not discounted, massive courses. Any bonehead could tell you that.

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One Comment
  1. Udacity. What a name. Audacity with something missing….

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