Thursday, June 3, 2010

Elite Universities Edge into E-Space

Here's a tale of two UCs -- the University of California and the University of Chicago.

University of California Contemplates Online Degrees

If crisis is opportunity, it's time for the university system I work for to pounce. Alas, the University of California -- ten campuses, 231,853 students (Fall 2009), 96,914 full-time and 86,753 part-time staff (October 2009), a $15.6 billion budget (2009-10), all in a state that's been trying for years to divest from higher education -- isn't exactly positioned for agile pouncing.

Nonetheless, according to a 9 May article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, UC has big plans for pushing online education (a.k.a. "distance learning") into the hallowed halls of elite academe.
This fall [leaders at the University of California] hope to put $5-million to $6-million into a pilot project that could clear the way for the system to offer online undergraduate degrees and push distance learning further into the mainstream.

While this looks like a tectonic shift to top-tier university insiders, others can be forgiven their jaded response to UC's pilot:
[...] plenty of universities have offered online options for years, and more than 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall-2008 term, notes A. Frank Mayadas, a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who is considered one of the fathers of online learning.

"It's like doing experiments to see if the car is really better than the horse in 1925, when everyone else is out there driving cars," he said.

The proposed pilot is generating loads of debate, firing up professors at UC Berkeley (where I am a member of the staff). Many professors are outraged at the proposed dilution of the campus "brand" ... and dismissive of claims that online courses in any way resemble the quality of education offered in classrooms and lecture halls, where students have direct access to and challenge from the faculty and each other. Daniel Greenstein, a UC vice provost, says that elite public universities have resisted following a trend associated with community colleges and for-profit institutions.

"A move online could be seen as an admission that you're moving downscale."

Dean Christopher Edley of Berkeley's Boalt Law School, a key proponent of UC's move into online education, gives his view of the university's ponderous tendencies when he observes:
"What I fear is that the coalition of the willing among frontline faculty who would like to pursue this idea will be stopped dead in their tracks by the bureaucracy."

University of Chicago Press: Giveaways to Hook E-Consumers

The University of Chicago is not known for its bread & roses economic theories. Indeed, the "Chicago school" of economics is practically a synonym for free market libertarianism. In that context, you might not think of the University of Chicago Press as an innovator in the information-wants-to-be-free realm. But, against expected type, Chicago Digital Editions, the e-publishing arm of UoC Press, is giving away a free e-book every month, and has been doing so since November of last year.

According to a 10 May CHE blog interview with press director Garrett Kiely, it's a bid to understand better how customers interact with the electronic forms of the academic titles the press offers. Offerings have included older general-interest books as well as new volumes for which the press is eager to generate attention.

"How do the authors feel about it?" asks Wired magazine's interviewer, Chris Anderson. Press director Kiely replies,
The authors have been pleased that their books are getting out and being used and they appreciate the additional marketing push for their other books. They understand that this is a time-limited promotion and they have been supportive.

I'm not going to attempt to draw any grand conclusions here. It's simply worth noting, I think, that fluster, confusion, and foundational shifts around the digitization of information isn't limited to commercial publishers. At elite universities, there's fluster, confusion, and foundational shift aplenty.

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