A Political Online Push

When Jon Stewart asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week for some examples of how he intended to administer “limited and effective” government, the Republican governor did not roll out boilerplate rhetoric on welfare or farm subsidies. Instead, he took square aim at traditional higher education.

June 17, 2010

When Jon Stewart asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week for some examples of how he intended to administer “limited and effective” government, the Republican governor did not roll out boilerplate rhetoric on welfare or farm subsidies. Instead, he took square aim at traditional higher education.

“Do you really think in 20 years somebody’s 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?” Pawlenty asked Stewart, host of "The Daily Show."

“Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like it?” he said. “And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?”

This was not a new tune for Pawlenty; in 2008, he challenged the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) to more than double the percentage of credits it awards for online courses, setting a goal of 25 percent by 2015.

But Pawlenty’s reprise of this overture last week on "The Daily Show" and several other news outlets marked the first signs that Pawlenty, a presidential hopeful, could make online education one of his talking points. Although the Minnesota governor has made no formal announcement, many believe he will make a bid for the Republican nomination in 2012.

This makes his portrayal of traditional higher education as anathema to government efficiency, and of mobile-based online education as the cure, a potentially controversial flashpoint for the national conversation about distance learning. Pawlenty's mainstage advocacy of online education comes at a time when several other state higher education systems, notably in Pennsylvania and Indiana, have sought to leverage online technologies to cut costs. In Pennsylvania, some faculty members are viewing with alarm an idea being pushed in the state system to use technology to combine foreign language and other programs across several campuses. In Indiana, the addition of a Western Governors University campus -- in which credit is awarded online for demonstrating competencies learned -- is supplementing existing campuses.

Pawlenty’s Pet Project

Pawlenty’s effort to spur the expansion of online education in Minnesota’s public universities has shown some promise. When the governor set the 2015 goal for 25 percent of MnSCU credits to be delivered via predominantly online courses (i.e., those that include no more than two face-to-face meetings per semester) back in November 2008, that figure stood at 9.2 percent. It now stands at 12.5 percent. Officials at MnSCU say that is a significant leap, especially so given that the system has grown its overall enrollment by 10 percent over those two years.

It does not, however, put the system on track to reach the 25 percent online credit goal by 2015 — unless “blended courses” are included. Adding blended courses, the current rate jumps to 17.1 percent, up from 11.9 percent in 2008. The system has a low bar for what courses qualifies as “blended”: it classifies as such any course in which at least one class session per semester is held online.

In any case, the proportion of educational credits being awarded by Minnesota’s public colleges is on the rise, and the goal to “increase access and student success through online learning” remains a part of the board of trustees’ official action plan. The system is also building interactive training modules designed to help prepare professors to teach online more effectively, says Patrick Opatz, the chief operating officer for MnSCU’s online learning system.

Faculty Concerns

Some faculty members have found Pawlenty’s push distressing. Rod Henry, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, a MnSCU faculty union, says professors are concerned that Pawlenty’s drive toward online education might unduly increase their workload and compromise quality.

Henry cited the widely acknowledged fact that online courses are more work-intensive to teach than face-to-face ones, and said some professors, including himself, have had to teach online courses on top of their existing teaching loads. “You can do that sort of thing one semester perhaps,” Henry says. “But over time, we believe quality will suffer.” Currently, the way online teaching is counted toward workload varies by campus, system officials say: Sometimes an online course will be counted as part of the faculty's normal workload, and sometimes online students will count as "overload," meaning the professors get paid extra on a per-student scale (which is not as much as they would be paid if it were counted as a regular course). The union has lobbied for a system-wide standard for nearly a decade with no success, Henry says.

Opatz, the online education administrator, says professors are largely moving their courses online voluntarily, not because of any orders from above. But Henry suggests this is a misleading portrayal of faculty enthusiasm.

How it works, Henry says, is that academic administrators at the system’s 54 campuses tell departments, particularly ones that cost more money than they bring in, that they need to find some way to boost their enrollments — the implication being that departments that fail to do so could see their funding cut as the system looks for ways to streamline its operations in light of diminishing funding.

The threat of phasing out modestly-enrolled programs is a reality at other state higher-education systems: Pennsylvania is planning to use online education to combine degree programs across its public universities — a move that is expected to lead to job cuts among faculty members on the individual campuses whom the move would render extraneous.

The only way that MnSCU faculty looking to avoid that fate can boost their own numbers is to go online, Henry says. So while some professors might be glad to make the shift, many are doing so "voluntarily" simply because they feel they have no choice. This could be damaging in the context of a sweeping effort, Henry says, since “online does not seem to work equally across all disciplines and all students.”

What is worse, he added, the faculty was not consulted before Pawlenty made his pronouncement and the board codified it.

Rigging the Debate?

The University of Minnesota, as the state flagship, tends to have more independence than MnSCU. But when Pawlenty promulgated his plan for MnSCU in 2008, he did encourage a similar push on the University of Minnesota campuses. And with the governor now on the national stage, J.B. Shank, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities, is concerned. And he says a lot of his colleagues are, too.

Specifically, Shank says he is troubled by Pawlenty’s framing of the issue as a battle between pro-efficiency, pro-technology students of the “iPod generation” and stodgy, ivory-tower luddites who care more about self-preservation than lowering barriers to higher education.

“Technophilic talk is a pernicious distraction,” he says, “because it allows for a certain kind of justification for not giving the university the money it needs to provide the kind of education it wants to provide.”

Shank is not the only observer troubled by Pawlenty's online-education evangelism on "The Daily Show." In a column for MinnPost.com yesterday, reporter Sharon Smickle picked apart the governor's comments, saying that quality online education costs substantially more than the $199 figure Pawlenty quoted, without qualification, to Jon Stewart. Smickle observed that individual courses at the Minnesota-based online for-profit Capella University cost between $795 and $1,035, and that during hearings in the Minnesota legislature, experts had testified that to do distance education properly is "neither cheap nor easy."

There is a conversation to be had about the role of online education in lowering the costs of certain segments of higher education, Shank says. But the broad-strokes manner in which Pawlenty seems to be painting the issue on the national stage is not a good starting point, he says. Dubious math aside, the subtext of the governor’s narrative is that a liberal arts education is either obsolete or undeserving of state support, Shank says. This should strike educators as alarming, he says, since online learning platforms are inadequate venues for the sort of extemporaneous Socratic exercises in critical thinking that lie at the core of the liberal arts. (Shank cited a recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks exalting the societal value of the liberal arts, and pointed out that Pawlenty himself is the product of such an education.)

Henry, too, said he thinks the national conversation on online higher education might be better served if Pawlenty framed it with a little more nuance.

“What he should have said,” Henry says, “is, ‘We have these technologies, and we’re going to help you use them where you think it’s appropriate in consultation with the administration… We want to make sure what we’re doing is pedagogically sound, and that we’re giving students [the quality education] we say we’re giving them.' ”

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