California Pointing the Way to Online Education

This California legislative initiative to make public universities accept online-only work in introductory courses is a very modest step, but I think a hugely important one. The key issue with any kind of potentially disruptive technology is how does it get any kind of foot in the door where people can explore and build upon its potential.

Outside the realm of formal education, the Internet has obviously emerged as a key learning tool. If you’re an adult person who’s done with his or her formal education but has some question of fact or some skill he wants to master, the natural first place to turn is the Internet. And, generally speaking, whether you want to know the difference between economic profit and accounting profit or how to dry-age beef at home the Web will tell you what you need to know for free. But in the formal sector, right now online coursework is very much associated with the cesspool of low-quality for-profit education that is giving it a kind of anti-halo effect even as everyone loves Wikipedia.

California offers a more promising path forward. The problem is that students face bottlenecks in their coursework. To take more advanced classes, you need to take introductory classes. But there are only so many slots in introductory classes to go around, so some students face trouble progressing. If you open the system up to online-only alternatives, you get a few promising developments. First, there’s a clear way to tell if the online-only alternatives suck. The University of California system enrolls good students and the idea is to move on to “regular” University of California classes. Second and related, there are real brand-names here. University of California and California State are names people know and degrees worth getting. Third, and in some ways most important, these are not the kind of courses that college professors are super-excited about teaching. Some technophobic dyspeptics will react in a paranoid way, but given objective resource constraints, many faculty members will be open to this kind of use of technology.

Nobody really thinks of very large introductory lecture courses as being the finest that American higher education has to offer. New technology that can supplant them could save some money but also holds out the promise of letting the people involved in the university system focus on what they think of as their best and most important work. Until now, the way this bifurcation has worked is by having online education simply compete with the lowest-quality traditional institutions. But we don’t really need more cost-effective ways to deliver low-quality education in America, we need better ways to deliver higher-quality education. If California can actually integrate technology to displace some of the low-end functions of high-end institutions, then we’ll really be getting somewhere.