UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze

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University of California President Janet Napolitano struck a rare blow for rational education practice this week by pushing back strongly against the craze for online learning courses. Online education isn’t a panacea, she said; it’s not for everyone, it’s not cheap, and if it’s done right it may not even save money.

Are you listening, Gov. Brown?

Napolitano, who took over at UC in September, made her remarks Monday during an appearance sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California. Some 500 spectators were present in person and, ahem, online. Her remarks can be seen on YouTube here.

Asked by PPIC President Mark Baldassare about UC initiatives in the online space, Napolitano moved promptly to separate fact from fantasy. She called the development of online courses merely “a tool for the toolbox.”


For higher education, she said, “It’s not a silver bullet, the way it was originally portrayed to be. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and by the way if you do it right it doesn’t save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or a professor at some level.”

As for preparing the courses, “if they’re really going to be top-quality, that’s an investment as well.” Taking aim at the dream that online learning might be most useful for students needing help in remedial courses in subjects like English and math, Napolitano said: “I think that’s false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them.”

Online courses might be all right for capitalizing on UC’s multi-campus structure by allowing students at one campus to take courses developed at another, she said, but she indicated that there’s still got to be human interaction.

That might come as a real disappointment for Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pushing hard for the most starry-eyed versions of online learning. As recently as the Jan. 22 meeting of the UC Board of Regents (of which he’s an ex officio member) he pressed university officials to experiment with online education requiring no human interaction whatsoever -- “a pure online course that, once it’s in the can, it’s almost perpetual motion.”

Bless Brown’s heart for thinking outside the box, but thank goodness that UC Provost Aimee Dorr was present to keep him tethered to Earth. “We want people to interact with each other,” she told him. “They learn from that.” Experience indicates, she said, that when students are utterly shut off from such interaction, they’re “less happy and less engaged.”

The faith that many people have in online learning as an alternative to the chalk dust of teacher-student interaction reflects a more general, and misplaced, faith in the magic of technology.


A good example is Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy’s misbegotten iPad program, which threatens to saddle the L.A. schools with overpriced, obsolescent tablet computers that leave students uneducated. Educational “reformers” like Deasy and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, besotted with technology, can’t get used to the idea that education is a labor-intensive project. Just because teachers require bothersome things like wages and benefits and have this curious tendency to organize into unions, you don’t save money by dispensing with them.

It’s proper to observe that pioneering online efforts championed by Gov. Brown haven’t yielded such great results. The emblematic case is that of San Jose State University, which partnered with Udacity, a Silicon Valley start-up that Brown had talked up, on several introductory online courses.

As was learned last July, more than half the enrolled students flunked, and the university had to put the program on hold for retooling. The revised program has shown better results, but that’s only after considerable human outreach and interaction. The experience only underscores what Napolitano said: Online learning is no silver bullet.