The perils of online college learning

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"Having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her own students," the professors wrote. They pointed to the risk that the edX model would lead to two classes of universities: a top tier "in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact with … a glorified teaching assistant."

That distinction is what defines "education." Anyone who has come into personal contact with an inspiring professor at the top of his or her field knows that the experience can't be reproduced by remote control; my own entire graduate school experience was made worthwhile by a single extraordinary teacher, without whom it might have been an utter waste of time. (Mel Mencher, step forward.)

The underlying problem with the online learning craze is that its proponents vastly overvalue the tools provided by the online platform and treat the content — that is, the material being learned — as a commodity.

That's one lesson delivered by San Jose State, though it's unclear whether the school knows it. Of the $150 the students paid for each online course, the university kept only $40, with the rest going to Udacity. (Neither partner expects to turn a profit from the pilot program.) When I asked Junn whether Udacity didn't receive an unfair share, she explained, "Udacity's costs are bigger because they've hired lots of staff to build the course — videographers, network programmers."

San Jose State paid professors $15,000 to develop each online course, but that came from a university grant. Junn says the professors who participated were permitted to reduce their regular teaching during the process, which sounds as if it might have been the non-online students who got shortchanged.

The school explains the courses' high failure rate by saying the students were "an atypical sample" — half were San Jose State students who had already failed the courses once.

The other half were students from an underprivileged Oakland high school. Many of the latter had no computer access, a fact the school only discovered three weeks into the online term.

"Now we know we need to communicate in advance that the students need access to computers," Junn says.

But what the school also overlooked is that students with academic problems may not be the best candidates for distance learning. "They need people almost literally holding their hands, watching them do work," says Newfield, "being there when they get frustrated at the moment when that happens."

Thrun concurs, but says it's an impractical goal for many underprivileged students. "If we could bring every learner into the classroom, let's just do that," he told me. But for students denied that access, programs like Udacity's may be the best second choice.

It's undoubtedly true that many aspects of online learning will prove valuable, in time. Expanding access to college-level learning to geographically and financially disadvantaged students is an important goal.

The question is whether it's consistent with the profit-seeking business models that interest venture backers like those behind Udacity and Coursera. If it isn't, guess which business plan will prevail.

Moreover, if university administrators think the online model will allow them to save money, say, by employing fewer or less-qualified teachers, without sacrificing the quality of the education they provide, they've been hoodwinked.

That's the danger of believing promises of a pedagogical revolution when they're purveyed by companies with something to sell.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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