Budget-crunched public colleges turn to web courses, with a fat payday for curriculum companies.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: First, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit.
That’s the way Laila Lalami, University of California-Riverside creative writing professor, explained it in a recent tweet, and that’s pretty much the whole story behind the bill introduced this week by the Democratic leader of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg. His bill requires California’s community colleges, along with the 23 Cal State and 10 University of California schools, to allow students to substitute online courses for required courses taught by faculty members. The key to the proposal: The online courses will be offered by profit-making companies.
Steinberg argues, correctly, that the state’s colleges and universities have an obligation to offer the courses they require for graduation. Right now hundreds of thousands of students are prevented from graduating on schedule because they can’t get into required lower-division courses. That’s shameful and intolerable. But it’s a crisis created by the Legislature, when it cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s higher-education budget over the last few years.
THE COMPANY GETS MOST OF THE REVENUE; THE UNIVERSITIES KEEP 6-15 PERCENT.
Advocates of the new plan downplay the for-profit aspect and say they want to “mobilize technology” to “help students achieve their dreams.” They told the L.A. Times the bill represents “a watershed moment for higher education” that will encourage the rest of the nation to follow. Since Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, the bill is sure to pass – and Gov. Jerry Brown is likely to sign it into law.
The companies that make a profit by providing required courses online include Coursera, edX and Udacity, the big three. Coursera is “the leader of the pack,” according to the The New York Times. In less than a year, it raised $22 million in venture capital. The big issue for investors, the Times reports, is whether “anyone can figure out how to make money” in this new business. James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in Internet law, told the Times, “It’s maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.”
The profits in this online-class business come not only for “certificates of completion” bought by students at roughly $50 per course, but also from licensing fees from universities that replace their own faculty with online instructors. Under Coursera’s contract with colleges, the Times explains, “the company gets most of the revenue; the universities keep 6 percent to 15 percent of the revenue, and 20 percent of gross profits. The contracts describe money-making possibilities, including charging for extras like manual grading or tutoring.”
The sponsors of the California proposal promise that educational quality will be guaranteed because three faculty members will be asked to review the online courses provided by for-profit companies.
What kind of educational experience will California college students have in these online courses? Instead of interacting in a classroom or lecture hall with the instructor and other students, they will sit at home alone in front of their computer monitors, watching videos of lectures, reading assigned materials online, and then taking machine-graded quizzes.
Maybe that’s why fewer than 10 percent of students in online courses finish the classes they sign up for. With a 90-percent dropout rate, we have reached the final step in the process: After cutting the budget, waiting for over-enrollment and then shifting classes online for profit, finally we can blame the students for failing to “mobilize technology” to “achieve their dreams.”
JON WIENER is a contributing editor at The Nation.