By Peter Galuszka
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell sure seems to love lobbyists. When it came time select someone to be co-chairman of a “summit” on education in August, he chose James W. Dyke Jr., a former state secretary of education who is now a registered lobbyist for the big-time online, for-profit companies as The Apollo Groups, which runs the University of Phoenix.
Online education is indeed the buzz for months, especially among would-be education reformers many of them conservative, who see the for-profit, techie approach as a way to get more bang for the school bucks, cut costs, bypass teachers’ unions in K-12 and get rid of the leftover 1960s leftie element in the state’s public university system. For them, it is a win, win, win, win while keeping true to the Goddess of Budget Cuts.
The approach is gaining power so fast it nearly pushed out Teresa Sullivan, a highly-acclaimed college administrator as the president of the University of Virginia last month.
Sullivan’s alleged reluctance to blindly embrace online education completely, was one reason Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas, who apparently just heard of the concept despite a couple of decades of distance learning experimentation, was one of her major criticisms of Sullivan Somehow, Dragas assumed, Sullivan didn’t get the “existential” threat to her school wrought by changes in technology. Thousands of Sullivan fans at U.Va. and elsewhere turned the tide and had the firing reversed.
But that hasn’t stopped the march to online education as Dyke’s appointment shows. It doesn’t matter if it is uranium mining or classroom instruction, McDonnell seems to have a knee-jerk thing for lobbyists.
Questions abound about online education. In a look at the system, Karin Kapsidelis the Richmond Times Dispatch shows that some college professors
are excited about the idea of making university courses available more or less
for free through such programs as Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Backing them are some big name schools such as Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
The upside of such courses is that plenty of people can register for classes – up to 94,000. They tend to work better for hands-on technology or science, such as how to create a computer search engine or take a basic class in physics.
The not so good news is that you don’t credit college credit for the classes but pay for a test and a certificate if you pass. It doesn’t mean you get an MIT sheepskin to hang in your office. Drop out rates are extreme. According to the TD, of the 94,000 students who signed up for a Computer Science 101 class, only 10,000 completed it in the two-month timeframe. In another course, 75,000 enrolled in the same class that was extended beyond the two months but only 12,000 were actively participating at any time.
Experts say that such course may work for science and engineering where the answers are typically right or wrong, but not for liberal arts, which the Dragas putsch tried hard to de-emphasize at U.Va., not eliminate. As one online
professor told the RTD about handling essays and book reviews, “It’s not
immediately clear how you’re going to grade 30,000 submissions automatically.”
Alas, there are far bigger problems, especially when the online fad gets into Grades 12 and below. The state of Colorado has been undergoing a thorough reassessment of its commitment to online secondary school education. A 2010 state report showed that online students showed below-average test scores, dropout rates of 50 percent or more and teacher-student teaching ratios of a stunning 317-1.
As Colorado gets sucker-punched by the for-profit, online craze, it is having to spend more, not less, state education money retraining and re-educating students hurt by the online experiment.
In Virginia, we are being told that this is a “revolution” and we’d better get onboard or face the “existential threat.”
The bigger threat, however, is jumping in and cheating children and college students of an education. How are we going to know the risks when the co-chairman of the governor’s education “summit” is a bought and paid for and registered lobbyist for the biggest for-profit online education firm?