The perils of online college learning


Let it not be said that San Jose State University hasn’t taught the world a valuable lesson in the promises and pitfalls of the fancy new craze for online university learning.

The Cal State University campus set itself up as a pioneer in the field in January, when it announced plans to enroll up to 300 students in three introductory online courses; the fee would be $150, a deep discount from the usual cost of more than $2,000.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who had been pushing the state’s public universities to embrace high-tech teaching modes, was on hand to mark what he called an “exciting moment in the intellectual history of our state and of our university.”


Two weeks ago the results of the experiment came in. More than half the students flunked. San Jose’s work with Udacity, the well-funded Silicon Valley start-up that set up the online program, will be suspended for the fall semester — put on “pause,” as the partners say — so the courses can be retooled.

“We want to reduce the hype and take a scientific look at the results,” San Jose State’s provost, Ellen Junn, told me.

That’s very wise, but the chances that careful evaluation of the San Jose experiment will reduce the hype surrounding online learning are slim. Online learning is seen today as the answer to virtually every problem facing higher education, especially public higher ed.

Strapped for cash? You can vastly expand your program without hiring lots of crabby, expensive professors. For example, Georgia Tech is proposing to expand its computer science master’s program from 300 students to 10,000 by offering its courses online around the world. The school figures it can do this without expanding its 80-member faculty by more than eight teachers. This looks like a “significant revenue generator for the college,” according to the original proposal.

Too few classroom seats for the thousands of students hungering for your professors’ lectures and your institution’s degrees? Put the lectures online and reach a worldwide student body! Tired of paying to sweep your buildings’ corridors and scrape ivy off the exterior walls? Online platforms require no such upkeep. Students will learn better, and at less expense, through the miracle of technology.

You don’t have to ask where you’ve heard this before, because you hear it all the time. Every new technology is hyped as a world-changer and life-changer — just last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was urging that every schoolchild have a laptop, because in the near future, textbooks would be a thing of the past. As I observed at the time, this was education as seen through the eyes of Apple Inc., not through the eyes of genuine educators.


The promise of online learning has made it onto the agendas of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where big investors and government leaders hobnob to contemplate the global future, and of TED, the lecture program where ideas, good and bad, go to get inflated to world-beating scale.

News reports and blog posts bristle with terms like MOOC (the “massive open online courses” that ostensibly deliver the best in academic lectures to anyone willing to log in).

The hype originates mostly from educational start-ups backed by millions of dollars in venture capital. Udacity, which was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and Google fellow who says his goal is to bring “the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide,” launched last year with $20 million in venture funds. Its closest rival, Coursera, also founded by Stanford faculty members, has collected $65 million in backing so far, including a chunk from the World Bank.

So it’s not surprising that the services these firms offer resemble the product of a business model more than an educational model. More to the point, critics say, it’s a Silicon Valley business model.

“They think the distribution of information that they’re part of is the same as education, and that’s just not true,” says Christopher Newfield, an English professor at UC Santa Barbara who has been tracking the spread of the online learning mania. “Learning is not the same as watching TV or playing video games.”

To some extent, some promoters have already tuned down their original claims that their services could someday replace most, or all, bricks-and-mortar education.


“As I learn more about the field, it becomes clearer to me that there’s a beautiful value in on-campus education that we cannot and should not replicate or replace,” says Thrun, who holds three diplomas from eminent German universities. “What I am really after is access.”

His argument is that online courses can serve huge populations of wait-listed students unable to obtain slots on campus, or who need to fit college-level education in their spare time from work or family duties, or who are geographically remote from centers of learning.

That’s a laudable goal, but it’s not always the aspect seized upon by college administrators.

As it happens, San Jose State is ground zero not only for the rollout of online college classes but for the pushback too.

In an open letter in April, the school’s philosophy department rejected an administration directive to use an online video of Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel lecturing to his own students in a class on social justice. The material was provided to San Jose State by edX, a partnership that Harvard and MIT created to market online lectures by their faculty and others’ (including UC Berkeley’s).

“Having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her own students,” the professors wrote. They pointed to the risk that the edX model would lead to two classes of universities: a top tier “in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact with … a glorified teaching assistant.”


That distinction is what defines “education.” Anyone who has come into personal contact with an inspiring professor at the top of his or her field knows that the experience can’t be reproduced by remote control; my own entire graduate school experience was made worthwhile by a single extraordinary teacher, without whom it might have been an utter waste of time. (Mel Mencher, step forward.)

The underlying problem with the online learning craze is that its proponents vastly overvalue the tools provided by the online platform and treat the content — that is, the material being learned — as a commodity.

That’s one lesson delivered by San Jose State, though it’s unclear whether the school knows it. Of the $150 the students paid for each online course, the university kept only $40, with the rest going to Udacity. (Neither partner expects to turn a profit from the pilot program.) When I asked Junn whether Udacity didn’t receive an unfair share, she explained, “Udacity’s costs are bigger because they’ve hired lots of staff to build the course — videographers, network programmers.”

San Jose State paid professors $15,000 to develop each online course, but that came from a university grant. Junn says the professors who participated were permitted to reduce their regular teaching during the process, which sounds as if it might have been the non-online students who got shortchanged.

The school explains the courses’ high failure rate by saying the students were “an atypical sample” — half were San Jose State students who had already failed the courses once.

The other half were students from an underprivileged Oakland high school. Many of the latter had no computer access, a fact the school only discovered three weeks into the online term.


“Now we know we need to communicate in advance that the students need access to computers,” Junn says.

But what the school also overlooked is that students with academic problems may not be the best candidates for distance learning. “They need people almost literally holding their hands, watching them do work,” says Newfield, “being there when they get frustrated at the moment when that happens.”

Thrun concurs, but says it’s an impractical goal for many underprivileged students. “If we could bring every learner into the classroom, let’s just do that,” he told me. But for students denied that access, programs like Udacity’s may be the best second choice.

It’s undoubtedly true that many aspects of online learning will prove valuable, in time. Expanding access to college-level learning to geographically and financially disadvantaged students is an important goal.

The question is whether it’s consistent with the profit-seeking business models that interest venture backers like those behind Udacity and Coursera. If it isn’t, guess which business plan will prevail.

Moreover, if university administrators think the online model will allow them to save money, say, by employing fewer or less-qualified teachers, without sacrificing the quality of the education they provide, they’ve been hoodwinked.


That’s the danger of believing promises of a pedagogical revolution when they’re purveyed by companies with something to sell.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.