Hooray for Janet Napolitano and her views on online learning (and public HE in general)!

March 27, 2014 Tony Bates

Napolitano

Napolitano, J. (2014) A conversation with University of California President Janet Napolitano Sacramento CA: Public Policy Institute of California

Hiltzik, M. (2014) UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze Los Angeles Times, March 26

The conversation

I never thought I would be a cheerleader for Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and a former governor of Arizona, but in her role as the relatively new President of the vast University of California System, she recently made some much needed comments about the hype around online learning in a ‘conversation’ at the Public Policy Institute of California two days ago (captured in a YouTube video).

The whole ‘conversation’ lasts about an hour, but her comments on online learning come 31 mins 10 secs into the interview and last only two minutes, with another brief comment at 48’15. However, the whole of her comments, about UC and the importance of publicly funded higher education, are well worth listening to by anyone interested in the future of public higher education.

What she said about online learning

She did not (contrary a possible reading of Hiltzik’s headline in the LA Times) pour cold water on online learning. What she said was as follows:

  • it is one tool in the toolbox
  • it’s not easy to do well
  • students need regular interaction online with other students and with instructors
  • so it’s not going to save buckets of money
  • it’s better for students in upper level programs
  • it could help in sharing courses across campuses and in assisting transfers (between community colleges, state universities and UC).

Why what she said is important

There are probably many of you reading this article who like me, would agree with all the points she made about online learning. But these comments need to be seen in the following context:

What she is doing is bringing online learning down to the level of sensible policy – not a silver bullet for all HE’s ills, but one, important, tool in the box. This allows policy makers to focus on the true value of online learning, and also protects it from disappearing off the radar when the next fad hits the USA, or when disillusionment sets in around MOOCs.

What she also said about public higher education

You probably know the feeling of going into a bookstore to look for just one book, then another book catches your eye and keeps you riveted. That’s what happened to me with this video. My intent was to skip through the video until I got to the bit on online learning (not knowing when it would come up). But she held me with her thoughts right from the beginning in two related areas: the value of a strong public higher education system; and the enormous importance of the University of California system, for the USA as a whole. I’ll start with a few points about the UC system (see  New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all for more details)

The UC system

  • the state of California is the eighth largest economy in the world
  • the UC system has 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students
  • UC’s total operating budget is $28 billion a year
  • 46% of UC’s new entrants are first generation university students, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language
  • 50% of UC’s students pay no tuition at all, because of scholarships, grants, and a reinvestment of 30% of paid tuition fees into funding poorer students. Students from families earning less than $80,000 pay no tuition
  • 30% of each annual intake transfer in from California’s two year community colleges
  • 70-75% of all UC undergraduates complete within four years (the highest percentage among public universities in the USA)

The value of a public higher education system and UC in particular

I can’t really do justice to her eloquence on this subject, but the main points are

  • UC is an essential component of California’s knowledge-based economy: thousands of top-quality graduates entering the work force each year. In terms of sheer numbers, UC is a critical economic generator for the future in California
  • UC is a powerful engine that drives social mobility (see above).

The need for a public debate on the funding of HE in California

Despite the massive size of the state system, the universities and colleges are turning away qualified high school graduates because all the places are full (the two year college system in particular is hugely oversubscribed in terms of places). There has been continuous and systematic reductions in the state budget for higher education over the last six years, due to tax cutting and a major drop in other sources of state funding. The affordability of HE is a key concern of Californian voters, and a key priority of UC is to keep tuition as low and as predictable as possible. However, this has to be balanced in terms of providing the education that California will need if it is to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse.

Napolitano was cautious about  leading a campaign for a debate or a new state-wide agenda on public higher education,  but if there is a case to be made, I’m sure she’ll make it – and make it forcibly. In the meantime, la-la land may be getting its feet back on the ground.

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