Keeping classes offline

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As students continue to log on, update and check in, some UT system administrators want to take that connectivity one step further.
Emails obtained by the Texas Tribune last week reveal that one of the major “reforms” being pushed by new UT regent Alex Cranberg and recently unemployed adviser/researcher/shapeshifter Rick O’Donnell is the expanded use of online classes.

In emails between regents, system staffers and O’Donnell, Cranberg writes, “There should be some kind of online learning excellence institute at UT” in reference to an online graduate engineering program in use at Stanford University. Additionally, the Board of Regents has created a “task force” to study how to implement “online learning.”

The idea isn’t entirely new to the debate over the future of Texas higher education. Last year, a 20-member panel on higher education created by Gov. Rick Perry recommended students be required to take at least 10 percent of their coursework outside the classroom such as through online classes. Bernie Francis, a member of the panel, said “If the University of Phoenix can be successful, the question needs to be asked: can the public sector do the same?”

Yes, we should really try to emulate the University of Phoenix.

Online classes offer some advantages in certain areas where they complement existing curriculums. Such courses give students flexibility in scheduling, which can be especially important for nontraditional or part-time students.

As cited by the regents in their emails, Stanford offers several online engineering programs via its Center for Professional Development for post-graduate professionals to take continuing education courses.

UT already uses online classes as part of the UT extension program, whereby individuals can take certain courses online for credit.
Both examples are of optional classes offered to students and nonstudents alike, who for one reason or another are not able to attend in a traditional classroom setting. They are not, as proponents have tried to imply, an adequate substitute for either lecture or discussion-based classes.

Thousands of students in this country are currently enrolled in online classes, many through for-profit universities such as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix. Most of those students will either not graduate, or if they do, face high rates of unemployment as employers perceive their degrees to be of inferior quality than those from traditional universities. Those graduates are also twice as likely to default on their student loans.

What it boils down to is that physically sitting in a lecture hall or classroom is not the same as reading a powerpoint or watching a webinar.

Proposals such as the aforementioned rule requiring 10 percent of courses be taken online would do nothing but force students out of a classroom and onto a computer, an unprecedented step in the wrong direction. Furthermore, there is no proof that online education would do anything to alleviate the financial burden on Texas colleges and universities. UT-San Antonio provost John Frederick told the Houston Chronicle last summer that implementing online learning curricula can actually be more expensive than classes in a traditional setting.

Online materials should be incorporated into a curriculum when such materials substantially improve the quality of the education offered by that curriculum. They should not be forced onto students or faculty out of consideration for financial costs.

There may be colleges and universities in Texas where implementing more online learning is an effective and viable alternative to a traditional classroom setting, especially those schools that serve a more diverse constituency than UT. This University is not one of those schools. Forcing students out of the classroom is an ill-conceived proposal that would degrade the quality of education offered and do further irreparable damage to the University’s reputation.

It would be best for our Regents to remember that their responsibilities to the UT system include maintaining a “University of the first-class,” and not converting the Forty Acres into the Austin branch of the University of Phoenix.