Wishful Thinking Will Not Save the University of California

Posted on Jul 12, 2010

You do not have to attend a university to learn about math. The same is true of physics, writing, engineering, and a myriad of others. If you are motivated and curious you can do a few searches online, check out some books from your library, and receive help and guidance online in chatrooms, forums, and the like. Education has been free and available to inquiring minds for a very long time. I don’t think I need to go through the laundry list of famous individuals and free-thinkers who taught themselves everything they needed to know and left an indelible mark on human history. Access to fine published work and research material has never been more cheap and accessible than it is today. If you want to learn math, you can learn everything you need without stepping foot in a classroom.

The body of knowledge available online is continually growing. It grows not only in volume, but in quality as well. Fine institutions such as MIT give away lecture videos for free. Others give away course material as well. Experts in industry have been sharing knowledge on the Internet for over a decade. And there is no evidence to suggest that this deluge of freely available knowledge will ever stop.

Why then is the University of California making such a big deal about offering degrees and courses online? In an article on SFGate, the Berkley Law School Dean, Christopher Edley is quoted as saying:

“We want to do a highly selective, fully online, credit-bearing program on a large scale - and that has not been done.”

Well I suppose it has been done by Stanford, but perhaps he has a little more ambition. I applaud that ambition. I think it’s a fantastic idea and that UC Berkeley is lucky to have someone who doesn’t have their head in the ground.

“We find Dean Edley’s cyber campus to be just the beginning of a frightening trajectory that will undoubtedly end in the complete implosion of public higher education” in California, Berkeley doctoral student Shane Boyle testified.

Perhaps his quest for tenure has forced Shane Boyle to accept certain delusions. I don’t know and cannot say for sure. But it is obvious he’s not the only one that feels the way he does. I just want to point out that this is a form of wishful thinking. Many people believe that universities are an unshakeable pillar of civilisation. Perhaps it’s because these institutions have been around for nearly a millenium now. However, in that time the concept and model of university has undergone many changes. It’s just that people often resist change and fear it. Yet when presented with all the evidence that it’s true, they will find any excuse not to believe it. Some will argue unfavourably that it simply isn’t true; others will irrationally defend it with hyperbole, convinced that change will bring the entire Ivory Tower crashing down. They wish it wasn’t true and act as if it weren’t. Sadly, no matter how much they deny it or convince others not to believe it their delusions will reveal themselves and life will go on without them.

Such notions smell of elitism. The trouble I have with universities is that all they have to sell is experience and identity. They operate on one single asset: prestige. The knowledge they used to have authoritarian control over is practically free. They cannot keep it trapped in their monastic institutions anymore. All they can rely on now for their income (which is becoming an epidemic concern) is the allure of the prestige that their brand-name grants their students. You attend these universities because it says something about you and grants you a feeling of entitlement.

Education isn’t about which school you attended or who you sat next to in lecture. The truly curious have always sought knowledge. The Internet does nothing to hamper these efforts as we’ve seen. It fosters communication and community. Universities should be (and some have been) embracing the Internet and exploiting it to their advantage.

So I hope that the dean will have success in his lofty pursuit. If his school wants to stay relevant and connected to the modern world, they will not tarry to follow his lead. If the day comes that they do offer full-degree courses online I might even be one of their first students. I love learning and education. I just want there to be a better way to learn. The body of knowledege we have now and the tools available would be greatly enriched by the success of this dean’s initiative. I wish him the best of luck.

[tags]university of california, berkeley, education, online