New U. of California President Plays Down Online Education

The new president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, does not think online education is the answer to the fundamental challenges facing her system.

Ms. Napolitano, who took office last fall after serving four years as U.S. secretary of homeland security, sat for an interview this week with Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. Mr. Baldassare noted that online education did not figure in her stated initiatives. Here is how Ms. Napolitano responded:

I think there’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the tool box, where higher education is concerned; that it is not a silver bullet the way it was originally portrayed to be. It’s a lot harder than it looks. And, by the way, if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or professor at some level. And preparing the courses, if they’re really going to be top-quality, is an investment as well.

Ms. Napolitano’s remarks contrasted with the attitude of Gov. Jerry Brown, who last year promoted a pilot partnership with the upstart online-education company Udacity as a possible way to increase the capacity of California’s public universities while lowering costs. That experiment didn’t pan out, however.

And while campuses in the University of California system do offer many online courses, the university’s centralized online initiative, UC Online, has not quite lived up to expectations.

The new president continued:

Early on, the notion was you could use online learning to help students who were getting started, for remedial English or math, to be up to speed. I think that’s false. I think those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them. I think where online learning will turn out to be the most useful is to complement the upper-division coursework that we have.

You can watch the whole interview on YouTube. The online-education part begins at 31:00.

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