From the makers of massive budget cuts: a digital education


Over the last four years, the top managers of the UC system — the governor and the UC Regents — have launched an accelerating effort to make online courses a bigger part of the UC curriculum. It started in 2009, in response to crippling budget cuts, with the idea of an 11th, completely online campus. However, more recent efforts have focused on building partnerships with private online education companies like Coursera, edX and Udacity, which have gained recognition recently for innovations in online learning platforms. The aim has been the same: to make online classes a central part of a UC degree to the tune of 20 percent of total credits by some projections.

I take issue with both the process behind the initiative and the prospect of such an education. But first and foremost, I am appalled by the absurdity of the fact that the same people who constructed the fiscal crisis in the UC system — the governor and the regents — are now determining how we will deal with it. The same group of administrators that has condemned us to institutional poverty is now telling us that we must fundamentally restructure and digitize our curriculum just to stay afloat.

Their online strategy is fundamentally flawed because it does not address the root of the UC’s budgetary woes, that is, the ongoing financial neglect of higher education in California. Gov. Jerry Brown and the UC Regents are instead trying to paper over this political dilemma with a technological fix. They are counting on rallying our collective fetish for “innovation” and our enthusiasm for new educational technologies as a way of obfuscating the political-budgetary choice they have made to continually subordinate higher education funding to debt servicing and prison production. They want to bury their continued disregard for the UC system in flashy Silicon Valley-branded technologies, which they offer as our only hope of survival.

Much like the budget cuts of the last five years, the online push is an entirely undemocratic endeavor, a top-down initiative envisaged from the heights of Sacramento and the UC Office of the President and foisted upon a broad base of students and faculty.

It reminds us again of the peculiar constellation of political power in the UC system. Of the 26 voting members of the UC Board of Regents, only one is a student Outside of two nonvoting members who directly represent faculty, the rest are administrators appointed — not elected — to 12-year terms by the governor.

This arrangement in which decisions about the UC system are made not by the students and faculty who make up its heart, but by distant, unelected managers, is wholly undemocratic. It is through this machinery that we are being told to move our learning online.

Furthermore, the terms in which online education is being discussed are misguided. Since Gov. Brown and the regents have posited online learning primarily as a way of saving money, the focus of the debate has been trapped in market terms: how it can reduce costs and increase efficiency. There has been relatively little discussion of how online education will (or already does) enhance or degrade the quality of instruction and education.

The problem is that learning — truly transformative learning that helps you to grow as a person and as a citizen, not just information transfer — simply does not obey the rules of the market. It cannot always be done cheaper and more efficiently with new technology and automation.

And when the question of the quality of online courses does come up, the administrators who claim to speak for students like to float the idea that our generation of “digital natives” simply learns better on computers than we do in classrooms, that we prefer learning through interactive YouTube videos than we do through intimate face-to-face discussions. I think that is bullshit. They construct that narrative because it is convenient for their agenda.

I, personally, am tired of the ever-enclosing boundaries that debt-servicing budget cuts artificially construct around our educational experience. Our so-called leaders have locked us in an austerity prison-house and now claim to offer us the only way out.

More online coursework may have some place at the UC (if the decision makers were grounded, they would see that it already has a place), but it is not a solution for budgetary neglect and it cannot be commanded from above. A successful public university system, one that prepares us to be creative and engaged citizens, requires significant public investment. There is simply no way around it.

Patrick Sheehan is a fourth-year sociology major.


This article appeared online only at on Friday, May 3, 2013.