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A Massively Bad Idea

According to a recent article in The Chronicle, a state senator in California has sponsored a bill that would establish “a statewide platform through which students who have trouble getting into certain low-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses offered by providers outside the state’s higher-education system.”

In other words, students at California’s public colleges who are unable to enroll in regular classes due to overcrowding will instead be steered into MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

That strikes me as a massively bad idea.

Admittedly, I’m an outsider. I don’t live in California, and I’ve never worked in that state’s higher-education system. Maybe I just don’t understand what’s going on.

Apparently nobody else does, either. According to The Chronicle, “right now SB 520 is just a two-page ‘spot bill,’ a legislative placeholder to be amended with details later.”

Lacking such “details,” let’s stick with what we do know. We know that community-college students are among those most affected by California’s shortage of classes—The Chronicle reports that “more than 472,000 … students enrolled in the California Community Colleges last fall were put on a waiting list for a course that was already full”—and thus they will be among those most affected by a move to MOOCs.

We know that community-college students, practically by definition, are some of the students least prepared for college work. Based on data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse, we also know that they’re among the least likely to complete college and earn a degree.

We know, because of extensive research by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, among others, that community-college students who enroll in online courses tend to complete at an even lower rate than do students who enroll in face-to-face courses.

For example, a CCRC study that “followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington State between 2004 and 2009 found an eight-percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses,” according to a Chronicle report. A separate study of Virginia community-college students, conducted by the CCRC in 2010, found a similar disparity.

And listen to the sobering conclusion of the Virginia study: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”

We know that succeeding in online classes requires an extraordinary degree of organization, self-discipline, motivation, and time-management skill. A simple Google search of “how to succeed in online classes” yields a plethora of Web sites—including many college and university sites—offering students such gems as “be organized,” “manage your time wisely,” and (my favorite) “stay motivated.”

And finally, we know—or at least we seem to be learning—that MOOCs work best for certain types of students and certain types of courses. The students, of course, are once again the most self-disciplined and internally motivated—primarily, in fact, students who have had successful learning experiences in more traditional settings, including many who have already earned degrees. In other words, not community-college students.

As for the courses themselves, the Chronicle blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan notes that “most of the MOOCs that have been deemed ‘successful’… tend to be math-and-computation-based, and vocational rather than exploratory, idea-based, or laboratory-based”—not necessarily the “low level, high demand” service and survey courses specified by the California bill. He goes on to say that, “with proper study, we might be able to determine which subjects work best in MOOC format and which do not. But the worst thing we can do is force every area of study into one mode.”

The primary source of Vaidhyanathan’s information, by the way, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the digital classroom, Dan Cohen of George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

So to recap, California’s plan (or to be fair, one senator’s plan) is basically to dump hundreds of thousands of the state’s least-prepared and least-motivated students into a learning environment that requires the greatest amount of preparation and motivation, where they will take courses that may or may not be effective in that format.

Here’s a prediction: Those students will fail and drop out at astronomical rates. Then the hand-wringing will begin anew, the system will pour millions more dollars into “retention” efforts, and the state will be in an even deeper fix than it is now. (Virtual cheating will probably run rampant, too, followed by expensive anticheating measures, but that’s another blog post.)

Look, I’m not a politician or an economist. I don’t know the answer to California higher education’s budget woes. But I’m pretty sure herding community-college students into MOOCs is not it.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user quasireversible.]

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