It’s kind of strange when there’s something in the news that you actually know something about. I’m talking about the online classes that were the underlying reason why UVA president Teresa Sullivan was fired. In truth, it’s not the classes themselves that did her in. It was the fact that she stood in the way of
progress making a ton of money for prospective investors and rectors on the board of visitors who want to make UVA into a business that offers academic goods and services.
The best explanation for what might have happened is by Anne-Marie Angelo, UVA alum and current PhD candidate in History at Duke. (H/T Lambert at Corrente)
But let’s talk about those online classes for a second. As many of you may know, Brooke takes her AP English courses through Stanford’s Online High School. Stanford runs their OHS classes through an application called Saba Centra. It uses another program called eCollege as well but Centra is how the online classes are distributed. I was skeptical at first how this was going to work but it turns out that it is very good. The class is held in real time with high school students from all over the world. The app initially didn’t work on a Mac but they’ve straightened that out in the past year. Through Centra, the teacher can call on students. He/She can ask some of them to write short responses to questions while she is discussing the day’s material with other students. Students can respond to each other, chat and give “applause” feedback. The interface is loaded with features. It truly is an interactive experience and I’ve often passed by the basement door to hear her talking to her teacher as if she were in an actual classroom. Classroom attendance is strict. You can only miss a class for technical reasons or your grandmother died. If you’re sick, well, you’re at home soooo, what are you doing with your time?? In addition to the live classroom experience, the teacher can also provide supplementary material, like videos, that can be viewed through Centra. Students can view this material at their convenience within a given timeframe but if it’s part of an assignment, attendance will be recorded and graded.
I credit Stanford OHS for getting Brooke back on level and thoroughly challenged. The class material is not easy for a high school student. The course follows the Stanford University schedule so Brook’s course ended in May, leaving her time to finish up her other online courses which are not taken through Stanford. These two classes are American History and Precalc and are offered through a for profit curriculum provider. The application it uses is not as complete as Stanford’s. The classes are prerecorded and you go at your own pace. The interface is kludgy and it’s a bit like studying for your written driver’s exam. If you don’t answer the questions exactly as they have been spelled out in the lesson, you can’t go forward, even if you disagree with the answer or find the question poorly worded. The experience is much more pedantic, less lively, less personal. It’s something you want to get over with, not something to look forward to.
So, there are good online packages, like Stanford’s, which should be the current working model to be tweaked and adjusted for course material, subject and size of class, and there are not so good online packages. But the thing that makes Stanford’s OHS stand out is the quality of the faculty. This year, Brooke’s teacher was a professor of English who had scored AP English essays at one point in her career. Last year’s teacher was equally well qualified. I’ve asked Brooke several times if she thinks the classes are worth the outrageous price tag and she always looks like she would be bereft without them. What you are paying for in the end is the faculty and the program. Stanford has a lot of experience working with exceptional learners and the way it uses Centra and has set up these classes reflects that experience.
The bottom line is that you can’t just rush into these things. It takes time to research the online setup, choose materials, create supplementary material and train staff to get the best possible experience. Of course, there is no substitute for the ambience of a college or university where you can spend time with people in your classes who share your interests and with whom you can talk about issues that are important to you. Taking an online class or two is fine but you really need to be there to transform yourself and learn how to learn.
So, I sympathize with Teresa Sullivan who calls herself an incrementalist. In my opinion, that is exactly the approach that is needed when it comes to carefully and effectively implementing an online class so that the student and college gets the most value from it. Just buying a package off the shelf and running a few training seminars for the staff is just so corporate. What comes along with that will be a behemoth IT department and a standard, one-size-fits-all interface that will frustrate all but the most dedicated hackers. You know how I know this? It was in the way in which the forced resignation was handled. No one in the faculty was consulted and it was done quickly, without much thought to fallout or repercussions for the university’s reputation. The Board of Visitors want to make money and that means skimping on the interface, implementation and preparation steps so that a lowest common denominator image can be rolled out before the fall classes start. That’s probably why university professor Bill Wulf resigned yesterday. He knew that the minute you turn your expertise over to a corporate standard, you lose all control over it and any catastrophes that follow. Everything becomes centralized and making changes or handling problems becomes very difficult. Ask anyone who’s every worked in corporate research. The management class seems determined to get in the way of true progress.
Now, what could Teresa Sullivan have done differently to save her job? Well, she *could* have taken a serious look at the various schools and maybe scaled some of them back. I would have started with the Darden School of Business at UVA. One wonders if Jefferson would have approved of a business school as being sufficiently rigorous enough for UVAs standards. Business management isn’t really a science, it’s fairly artless and it is anything but humane. Everything I’ve read about business curriculum is that it tends to be trendy, appealing to the business class that has the attention span of a magpie distracted by shiny objects. It’s also light on actual content, much of it not well validated, except for the math, economics and accounting. Couldn’t you just roll that stuff into the economics department or send the future spreadsheet jockeys to an accounting program? Or she could have resolved to review the business program to make sure we aren’t graduating too many students who have no background in the industries that they will be managing. I know that if Sullivan had done something like that, those of us who have been laid off from our corporate research positions would have been eternally grateful. And given how unethically the MBAs have lead the global economy off a cliff, she might have prevented even more cocky Brooke’s Brother’s assholes from ruining the world. She could have been a hero.
But that’s all water under the bridge now. What’s coming up is finding a permanent replacement for Sullivan. And I have just the right guy for the job! That’s right, why not just recruit Barack Obama? There’s a good chance he’s going to lose anyway once the working class base he blew off in 2008 votes in November. There’s not a damn thing a hipster creative class person can do about that if Obama insists on running. And he’s got the right mindset. He’s a good fundraiser, he likes schmoozing with donors, who he will give his full attention to later, and he’s not terribly sympathetic to labor, which makes it all the easier for the Board of Visitors to dynamically strategize how to “harmonize” their benefits. (When you see “harmonize” in the company bulletins, update your CV) Besides, Obama is all about Change!™ It’s a match made in heaven. Solve two problems at once: hire Obama as the president of UVA and get a real Democrat to run in his place in November.
Update: Siva Vaidhynathan, professor of media studies at UVA gave an interview this afternoon that sounds eerily like my post. It’s like some kind of Vulcan mind meld. Cue the Twlight Zone theme. Here it is in its entirety, about 30 minutes.