Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “iCollege” comments on “The Daily Show” last week may appeal to young voters he needs to woo if he runs for president.
But some of the points he made in the nationally televised interview with Jon Stewart don’t square with statements he and his higher education appointees have made in Minnesota.
“There’s another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says show up at 9 o’clock on Wednesday morning for Econ 101,” Pawlenty told Stewart. “Can I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from where ever I feel like? Instead of paying thousands of dollars can I pay $199 for iCollege?”
As I watched the show, my mind went back to a hearing at the State Capitol last year before a higher education panel of the Senate Finance Committee. In the witness chair was Susan Heegaard, who then was Pawlenty’s appointed director of the state Office of Higher Education.
At first glance, the Pawlenty administration saw e-learning as a potential cost saver, Heegaard testified.
But after looking deeper, the governor came to realize that a shift to online courses could cost the state more money than traditional classroom education — at least for the next few years.
“If done well, it is neither cheap nor easy,” Heegaard testified. “Our understanding is that there could be up-front costs.”
Further, independent institutions that offer quality, accredited online education in Minnesota are charging much more than $199. The website for Minneapolis-based Capella University says [PDF] its tuition runs about $795 for a three-credit lower-division class and $1,035 for upper division.
So while Pawlenty has been consistent in his call for more online classes, his experience in Minnesota does not support his statement that “instead of paying thousands of dollars I can pay $199 for iCollege.”
Web designers in place of janitors
Intuitively, it seems that “iCollege” should be cheaper. After all, you don’t have to pay for heat, electricity and janitors — to say nothing of the basic bricks and mortar.
But a lineup of witnesses at the hearing explained why Heegaard was correct in saying it is neither cheap nor easy.
Pawlenty indicated in his “Daily Show” comments that studying online should be as simple as surfing the Internet on any hand-held device: “Just like having an iPad or an iPhone — information and choice at your fingertips — you decide where you want to go.”
But the information superhighway is littered with garbage. While there’s a wealth of worthwhile information, too, it doesn’t just appear. Someone spent skill, time and money putting it there. As a MinnPost writer, I have learned deep respect for the enormous commitment of time and resources it takes to create and maintain a site delivering high-quality information.
In the same vein, building and maintaining an online class takes hours and hours — not only for teachers, but also for designers, coordinators, librarians, graphic artists, videographers and Web developers.
The average cost of launching an online nursing course at the University of Minnesota, for example, was $23,000.
Fewer students per class
Once a class is launched, teachers must be available to interact with students individually and in groups, sometimes by phone as well as online. In the traditional mode, the university could pack 500 students into an undergraduate biology lecture. Done properly online, the biology teacher can’t handle more than 25 to 35 students.
Among other challenges, an online instructor needs to establish enough contact to know he or she is dealing with the student who enrolled for the class rather than with a parent or a hired stand-in. If a student submits a paper that doesn’t match demonstrated capabilities, the instructor needs to investigate.
Another huge up-front cost is providing students with good quality Internet access. Minnesota has yet to extend high-speed broadband service to every part of the state. Doing so will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Eventually, there should be savings. But no one knows how much at this point because online education is too new.
If there is an immediate cost saving, it tilts to the students who don’t have to take time away from work and pay for gas or bus fare, parking and day care.
Pawlenty also cast the higher education options as an either/or choice.
“Do you really think in 20 years somebody is going to put on their backpack, drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?” he asked Stewart.
That’s not the way he outlined the options in his 2009 State of the State Address. In that speech, Pawlenty called upon the higher education system to “find even more ways to become more efficient and less focused on geography and bricks and mortar.”
But Pawlenty also said, “I know online courses won’t replace some needed face-to-face education and hands-on experience, and we don’t want it to.”
Online classes don’t work for every student. Someone who lacks self-discipline or is disorganized is not likely to succeed. And some lines of study are better suited than others for online education.
Gravitating toward a blend
In fact, both the MnSCU system and the University of Minnesota are gravitating toward a blend of online and classroom learning — not simply tossing out the old in favor of the new.
The number of wholly online classes at the U of M more than tripled between the 2005-06 academic year and last year — from 340 to 1,179. And more than 12,000 students took advantage of them.
Meanwhile, more traditional university classes make far greater use of online interactions for everything from lecture notes to student-teacher chats. And the university is replacing some standard lecture halls with venues in which students will be able to engage in creative learning activities rather than sit passively in a class.
This year, MnSCU is on track to deliver 12.5 percent of its credits through courses that are predominantly online with no more than two face-to-face class meetings, said the system’s spokeswoman, Melinda Voss. One in three MnSCU students, about 93,000, will take such classes. For other classes, the offering is more of a blend with some content delivered online in exchange for reduced classroom time.
Here’s the catch, though: Three in four of MnSCU’s online students also choose to show up on campus for some classes. So the system still needs to provide and maintain facilities where students can meet with certain teachers, participate in group learning and practice their skills in labs.
‘As much as we can afford’
In the end, what Pawlenty suggested to Stewart was replacing the publicly subsidized system of colleges and universities with a free-market higher education system.
“Let’s not confuse supporting the service with who provides the service,” he said. “If I say to you, ‘Jon, we want you to go to college. We want you to do well. We are going to give you money. … We’ll give you as much as we can afford to under our budget.’ But instead of having a one-size-fits-all, command-and-control, you know, bureaucracy run by government employees, let’s put the consumer in charge.”
Given the fiscal record of the last two years in Minnesota, the pledge — “we’ll give you as much as we can afford to under out budget” — is not something on which Jon Stewart and/or the citizens of Minnesota should expect to bank the future for themselves, their families and employers with a need for a well-educated workforce.
Rather than invest in the costly transition to online, Pawlenty has led the state to slash higher education funding. Is he now saying that was a move toward phasing out public colleges and universities? That would be an interesting question for a candidates’ debate.
Education Policy 101
But Pawlenty deserves credit for thrusting the subject of “iCollege” into the brief interview. There was no real chance for him to deliberate the fine points. Comedy Central is hardly the venue for a boring lecture on Education Policy 101.
It’s an important topic — one that should engage people with a broad range of expertise and perspectives. And it does. A MinnPost story I wrote about this subject last year drew thoughtful comment.
Here are a few excerpts:
A graduate student: Online learning is self-directed and so not for everyone. Students have to be mature enough to schedule regular times to go to class online. They have to set deadlines for themselves to get the homework done on time. All those skills we develop as classroom learners have to be ramped up a notch. I earned a Master’s Degree through an online, for-profit university while working full time and raising a teenager. It was a wonderful experience; nothing compares to the flexibility of it. I was “in class” in my p.j.s from 9 to 11:30 pm a few nights a week over 3.5 years. I was far more immersed in the material than I would have been in a classroom after a full day of work. And I learned without interruption, parking hassles, weather issues, rushing from work, and missed dinners.
A teacher: I have had the joy of working with many dedicated students who have been eager to learn and for whom online learning was the only alternative for education (due to location/distance and time restrictions). Yes, there were students who were just punching a ticket to earn a passing grade, but the proportions of types of students were about the same as for on-ground course students. … Is teaching online more work for the instructor? It can be. The preparation, planning and weekly discussion participation is similar to preparation for an effective stand-up lecture and discussion, but the ‘entertainment’ is different. Engaging with the students through the written medium requires different (and sometimes more time intensive) skills.
Another teacher: I won’t deny that there is a place for online classes but nothing, nothing at all can inspire a student to learn like a compelling professor, and nothing inspires a professor (more) than watching the proverbial light-bulb going off in one or more students sitting in front of us.
Sharon Schmickle covers science, economics, international affairs and other topics.