Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Thoughts on “State U Online”

What would a fully integrated online state university system look like?

Rachel Fishman’s new report for the New America Foundation, “State U Online,” offers some hints.  It’s a wonderful read -- check it out here -- and what follows are just some thoughts that it triggered.  

Fishman’s report is written with an implied teleology: states will inevitably follow a series of steps until they arrive at a single, unified system.  Step five, the final step, even implies (though Fishman never explicitly states) that the end system would be national.  The report is written from the perspective of students who are trying to put together degree programs from disparate providers, and who sometimes fall prey to the all-too-common pathologies of the transfer system: incompatible prerequisites, mismatched requirements, and simple turf battles that result in lost credits.  The more integrated the system, the easier it will be for students to make their way through without unnecessary friction.

It’s a Hamiltonian vision, and I don’t mean that negatively.  (One sign that I’m not from the South is that I don’t automatically assume that Jefferson is right and Hamilton wrong.)  From a student’s perspective, the vision of being able to take any course from any provider, cheaply, without severing ties to a “home” institution is appealing.  The combination of advanced communication technology and very real cost pressures makes economies of scale greater and more important than they have ever been.

That said, though, I’m a little uneasy with the largely unexamined assumptions that scale is good and friction is bad.  

On an educational level, the heterogeneity (or entropy, if you prefer) of the current system allows room for local experimentation.  When curriculum is at least partially under local control, it’s possible for one or a few faculty with an idea to try something.  Different institutions can develop different flavors of courses based on local needs and talents.  In my own state, for example, Bunker Hill Community College has developed an innovative series of freshman seminars, while Holyoke Community College has grown an impressive set of upper-level learning communities, some of which involve co-teaching with faculty at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Amherst Colleges.  When a system is defined at a state or national level, from-the-ground-up innovations like those could have a harder time getting started.  Even in more traditionally “vocational” subjects, it’s easy -- though potentially devastating -- to overlook the importance of ties to local employers.  It’s not just a matter of job placement, as important as that is; local employers can provide instruction, feedback, and internships, as well as political support.  It’s not clear to me that any of those can scale up, outside of a few industry behemoths.

On a technical level, I’m still not convinced that the federal financial aid system is built to handle “home” and “host” arrangements at scale.  “Consortium” arrangements are labor-intensive on the back end in a way that defeats economies of scale.  This is potentially surmountable, and frankly, should be.  But it would require significant change.

On a political level, I’d be concerned about state support for interstate students.  Community colleges in particular derive much of their political support -- and in some states, financial support -- from local communities.  That’s based in part on clear identification with the local community, and in part on the fact that most community college graduates stay in the vicinity after they graduate.  (I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met in daily life who say “Oh, I went there!” when I tell them I work at HCC.)  The word “community” in “community college” isn’t just an accident of history.  

It’s a commonplace of political science that most Americans hate Congress, but think their own Representative is just fine.  Some of that has to do with the partisan identity of districts, yes, but part of it reflects local visibility and local ties.  I’ve seen something similar with community colleges; even people who make jokes about community colleges as a genre will speak well of their own local one.  A few years ago, William Fischel wrote a book called The Homevoter Hypothesis that captured this dynamic in the context of K-12 public schools and property taxes.  Essentially, Fischel argued that for most people, their home is their single largest investment.  As such, they need to pay particular attention to anything that might affect its value.  That includes the usual NIMBY stuff -- I’d rather not have a prison in my backyard, thank you very much -- but it extends positively to support for schools.  When schools are locally funded, he argues, voters are more willing to tax themselves to support them.  When voters see their taxes going to support schools outside their own towns, their support drops.  Compare the property taxes in New Jersey, where home rule is a religion, to the taxes in California, where the state routinely redistributes revenues.  New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the country, but its K-12 schools are generally quite good.  California’s property taxes were kneecapped by Prop 13, as were its schools.  Lose the local tie, and you lose the political support.

To be fair, Fishman implicitly prices that in.  She suggests that online ventures should be economically self-sustaining, taking for granted that state support will melt into air.  She’s probably right, at least in the long term, but I’m still hesitant to concede that fight.  And there’s a real payoff from local identification that goes beyond direct appropriations.  

These are real issues, but they’re signs that Fishman’s report is asking a host of great questions.  It’s thorough, thoughtful, and incredibly timely.  It’s even concrete, in a lot of ways.  Read it, argue with it, build on it.  I don’t know that I’m entirely ready for a “State (or National) U,” but at least I understand the question better now.  Nicely done.

Just a mention of something that occurred to me a while back.

Before I retired, I taught at an institution that was a part of the Sakai consortium, which is a group of schools that developed thier own on-line course management system. (Here's a list of all the institutions that use the system: http://www.sakaiproject.org/organization-list)

My thought was that, as these institutions moved into more solely on-line instruction, it should be possible for a student at any of the participating institutions to take a wholly on-line course at any of the other participating institutions. The interface would be the same, the system would work the sme way, and so on. (There are issues of revenue sharing between institutions, but that could be worked out.)

Doing this means being enrolled (home institution) in a Sakai participant, but it would create the possibility of a much wider range of choices for students.

I suggested it to the people in charge of such things at my institution (and got no response at all, so it was obviously a terribly popular idea); it now appears that my former institution may be moving away from the group anyway.

But something similar could be done by Blackboard institutions, or Moodle institutions, so far as I can tell...
Someone else thought of this in CA: http://news.yahoo.com/assemblyman-proposes-california-college-system-193800877.html
And, there is Western Governers University (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020106615_rating11m.html). WGU has negotiated transfer and articulation agreements with most of the western states. They recently hired away the President of Washington State's largest Community College (Bellevue College) to head their effort in that state.
Taken to the extreme, there is something vaguely Stalinist about having a single "we know what is good for you" university curricular structure nationwide. I find it particularly ironic when small-government politicians promote a Statist solution!

Even nationwide accrediting organizations (like for engineering) recognize the need for diverse institutions that can reach the same end with very different means. For example, they allow a wide range of liberal arts courses that sets a minimum for the purely technical colleges (like the Colorado School of Mines) while including colleges and universities that require a broad foundation in the liberal arts for all students.

It is important to note that, at present, even in systems that have a strong state-wide articulation plan built on pre-defined equivalent courses, universities still retain the power to decide which of many similar courses to use (the experimentation you mention) and control when students can take courses at a different institution. I agree that this is good, but also see that universities should be able to defend idiosyncratic criteria.

Finally, in my experience dealing with all sorts of transfer students using my CC as a stepping stone from one university to another, the single biggest problem is the coexistence of quarter and semester systems with the assignment of fractional credit when a student has only completed (say) 1/3 of a sequence that is only taught in halves. That has nothing to do with the "credit hour" and would have to be the first wall knocked down to create a more transfer-friendly system. States with really strong articulation and transfer agreements forced a uniform calendar on all state schools.
Help my india is the World Best Forum and Blogging Site which provides the all category of forum and blogging and Social Community site.

Online Communities

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?