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Online classes: The baby formula of higher education

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September 17, 2012|By Laura Desfor Edles
  • California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed says online classes need to be widely available. Above, students walk on the Cal State Long Beach campus.
California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed says online classes… (Los Angeles Times )

I was disturbed but not surprised to read that central to retiring California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed's "new Master Plan," as he wrote in his Times Op-Ed article last Tuesday, is a push for "year-round, online" education. As a full-time professor at Cal State Northridge, I am getting a bit worn out by this push (or should I say "shove"). What bothers me most about Reed's promotion of online education as part of the state's Master Plan for Higher Education is his absolute lack of candor.

Oddly, the administrative push toward online education reminds me of the 1950s infatuation with infant formula. In both cases, there is a legitimate advantage in the new systems' technology, convenience and innovation. Infant formula was and is a wonderful invention for women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, enabling fathers and other caretakers to be more involved. Likewise, online instruction is a wonderful option for self-disciplined and self-motivated students who prefer online education or cannot get to class.

However, just as Nestle had a strong economic incentive to convince women to use infant formula rather than breastfeed in the 1950s, the fact is that the push for online instruction is financially, and not pedagogically, driven. Just as women in the 1950s were told that infant formula was "just as good" for their baby as breast milk, Reed implies that online education is just as good as classroom instruction. But of course, in both cases, it is the convenience and economics that is central to its being pushed -- not the absolute quality of the product.

Moreover, what Reed does not say is that rather than simply being a new "option" for students, our brick-and-mortar classes are currently being replaced by online courses for financial reasons. Sadly, I have had many conversations with students who were taking online courses not because they wanted to but because they could not get a seat in a class. And I keep finding myself in what can only be described as inane and absurd conversations with schedule-makers in defense of classroom instruction.

Personally, I am dismayed that those of us -- professors and students alike -- who do not want to teach or learn online and who cherish the one-on-one interaction and non-virtual classroom experience are being made to seem like antiquated duds.  Just as my mother was told that the "modern" way to feed a baby was not to breastfeed, I am being told (ad nauseam) that we just cannot teach like we have in the past. But I do not buy it. Breast milk is still (in general) best for children, and the brick-and-mortar classroom is still (in general) best for students.

Finally, just as pushing women in underdeveloped countries to use formula proved to be catastrophic because they diluted the formula to stretch it longer or used polluted water to make it, pushing ill-prepared students or those who lack the self-motivation and self-discipline for online instruction into online courses is a recipe for disaster. Online instruction should be a choice for a particular kind of student. The vast majority of our students do not fit in this category, and these students should be encouraged to be in the classroom, not out of it.

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Laura Desfor Edles is a professor of sociology at Cal State Northridge.

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