March 14, 2013 7:41 pm
Few sectors harbour as many hopes and fears about technological change as universities. This week a bill was submitted to the California legislature that would require the state’s public universities to recognise credits obtained from third-party providers, including online educators. The initiative deserves applause. Some academics are terrified they could be heading the way of the horse-drawn buggy. Such fears are misplaced. But it is vital to ensure technology serves as a complement to face-to-face teaching, not as a substitute.
Too much of US higher education today is mediocre and overpriced. US student debt recently topped $1tn, while the rates of loan delinquency and graduate unemployment are worryingly high. The recent mushrooming of online educators has exposed the cartel-like behaviour of the existing system in which accrediting agencies and universities have colluded to restrict competition. By opening the door a crack to third-party course credits, the bill would mark a watershed in the rise of online education. The sector is ripe for disruptive technology. It is fitting California is leading the way.
But there are two important caveats. First, the bill comes amid prolonged austerity in California and universities have been hit harder than most. Their funding has been cut by more than a fifth in the past five years, which has forced faculties to cut student enrolment capacity in basic courses. Jerry Brown, California’s governor, has championed online learning as a way to cut costs and increase enrolment. From Berkeley to UCLA, the quality of California’s public universities has been a huge asset. It is critical to ensure the new era does not sacrifice face-to-face interaction between students and their instructors.
Second, California – and the US as a whole – needs a better way of evaluating university accreditors. There is a lot of money to be made in online teaching, testing and certifying. Many firms are already in the field, including Pearson, which owns the Financial Times. California must lead the way in ensuring the bodies that accredit third-party providers are held more accountable.
Many of the hopes about the potential of online learning are justified. The rise of so-called Moocs – massive open online courses – has opened people’s eyes to the material available for free. The next challenge is to ensure that the growing for-profit online industry is held to the highest standards. That, though, requires more work.
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