1) Add one part internet triumphalism to two parts market fundamentalism. 2) Fleece a bunch of students and unsuspecting taxpayers. 3) ??? 4) Profit!

No, really, lots of profits. For private corporations.

If you’re in higher education and you’re not following this story, you should be. The upshot (sorry, the executive summary) is that the California legislature is about to pass a bill “requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.”

The devil, as ever, is in the details. What does “faculty-approved” mean here? It seems clear but isn’t, I assure you, as every campus will likely have its own mechanism for determining such things. And though it sounds benign or even benevolent that the legislature is ensuring that students will receive credit for courses that they take online because they’re shut out of brick-and-mortar classrooms, one might wonder why those classrooms are overcrowded in the first place. Could it be because of budget cuts to higher education?

The real issue, though, is that this promises to be a huge transfer of money from a public education system to a private one: online vendors that offer courses for profit. And of course the unstated funding mechanism is government-backed student loans. Also, while it’s wonderful to hear Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the California Senate, say

We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed. That’s the motivation for this.

I find myself thinking, first, that perhaps Mr. Steinberg should have found a way to fund higher education in the state, to live up to a promise that’s already on the books, the California Master Plan; and second, that maybe The New York Times could have done some checking into Mr. Steinberg’s donor list and his dinner party invitations.

Let me be clear about a couple of points: it’s shameful that students are shut out of required courses in public colleges and universities (although again, this is a problem with a very simple solution), but it’s still more shameful that the State of California is rushing pell-mell to embrace a new educational model that has produced dubious pedagogical results. Online education may be fantastic some day. I hope, both for the sake of access and innovation, that it lives up to its promise. But to date, the actual model looks something like this: 1) High rates of failure and attrition (pdf). 2) Relatively poor learning outcomes even among those students who persist and pass their classes. 3) Profit for private corporations!


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