“On-line education” is no substitute for classes taught by human beings

An Open Letter to the California Legislature on SB520
May 7, 2013

An Open Letter to California State Legislators

Dear CA State Legislators,

As a parent and a UC professor, I feel compelled to urge you to reject the SB 520 bill being presented to you by Darryl Steinberg. Please fund the Community Colleges and the California State Universities and the University of California properly: that way you can help guarantee access to quality education. By mandating the use of on-line general education courses for public higher education, you put the entire system of public higher education at risk.

In education, there are no quick fixes: solutions such as SB 520 can cause long-lasting damage. Universities have been already been seriously weakened by years of budget cuts and administrative bloat. Real change, however, can only happen come through the implementation of ground-up reforms.

Our students need more interaction with real-life professors: they don’t need more screen time. The Internet is an amazing resource for research and learning, but more screen time for young people is not a substitute for rich pedagogical experiences. Students need more contact with professors and their peers in an information saturated media ecology. They need quality experiences with on-line education as supplements not substitutes for real life classroom experience.

Although SB 520 has been amended to protect public funds from private exploitation, the provisions are weak at best. Case in point: California spends millions of dollars a year buying STAR tests from the ETS. A rampant assessment emphasis in public education has provided a windfall for secretive, privately run organizations like ETS. ,Next, week, my son – like millions of Californian schoolchildren – will be taking standardized tests that may or may not provide accurate assessments of his academic achievements and aptitudes. Star testing was implemented as part of an accountability regime in K-12 education. It has produced mixed results in terms of actually improving the California public school system. Class sizes in public schools meanwhile have ballooned.

Technological solutions to social problems are dangerous panacea disguising the real cause of the problems we face – shrinking budgets for the University’s core mission of undergraduate education. Cynical administrative moves to disguise economic chicanery are not the solution.

As Diane Ravitch has written, “American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them.” (222)

SB 520 deplores the fact that so many of our students cannot get into courses to complete their degrees in a timely fashion. However, this is a problem that the three segments of public higher education in California do not have to the same extent. The UC faces that problem much less than the community colleges. Inversely, SB520 drives those in the UC, CSU, and the CCs who already developed their own hybrid technology-enhanced education into shot-gun marriages with for-profit providers, thus funneling public funds into private enterprise hands.. The present crisis is not some kind of natural disaster, like an earthquake. The crisis of access is entirely man-made!

Every undergraduate program on my campus has been cut to the bone: our core missions are compromised every day by budget cuts. Cal State, Community College and UC students represent a broad cross section of the population of California. Our students don’t deserve access to on-line education approved or not by CA faculty. They don’t deserve a virtual University — they deserve a real one. They need more access to professors, to content and to pedagogical situations that challenge and move them.

Please listen to the students. Time and again students across the state have insisted publicly that they neither need nor want more online education. Nor do they want state funds to go to for-profit and pseudo-not-for-profit vendors. Our students want a good education. Please leave it to those most engaged in public higher education to determine how technology-enhanced delivery can work to improve the classroom experience.

Please vote against SB 520. Please restore the UC, Cal State and Community College budgets so that we can continue to provide access to all of California’s college students.

Yours truly,

Catherine Liu
Professor, Film and Media Studies
Director, UC Irvine Humanities Collective
UC Irvine

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