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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Open SUNY fraught with uncertainty

When I was young, taking a college course involved hauling myself out of bed, grabbing a notebook and pen and sleepily walking to the building that housed my class.

But the traditional educational model is changing.

In recent years, colleges and universities have sought to expand their online course offerings, which enable people to take college classes from the comfort of their own homes.

On Tuesday, SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced an ambitious plan to make New York a leader in online education. Through the new Open SUNY initiative, students will be able to earn a college degree over the Internet, for the same tuition as students in campus settings.

According to Zimpher, SUNY hopes to enroll 100,000 students in Open SUNY over the next three years. The program went live this week with eight degree programs offered through six campuses, including Empire State College.

“Online education is arguably the hottest topic of the day, but I want to be clear: This isn’t about SUNY being trendy,” Zimpher said. “It is about making sure New Yorkers have the educational opportunities they need to be successful in the 21st century economy.”

I’m open to the idea that technology can help make college more accessible and cost-efficient, especially for nontraditional students who might have families or jobs. But I tend to be skeptical of claims that Internet-based classes and degrees will serve as a remedy for all that ails higher education.

Online education is new, and it’s worth asking some questions, such as: How good are these classes? How much will they save students, who will still be paying tuition, if not housing costs and other fees?

Is online education really designed to save colleges and universities money by enabling them to cut spending on faculty? Will the 24-7 technical support and tutoring services provided through Open SUNY be an adequate replacement for flesh-and-blood professors and classroom discussion?

SUNY is partnering with a private Silicon Valley company, Coursera, to bring online courses to the masses. According to the New York Times, “Coursera’s fees will vary, depending on the size of the class. For a large course, universities would pay about $8 a student to use the Coursera platform. In addition, for use of content developed at a different university, Coursera would charge $30 to $60 per student per course.”

Coursera has made a name for itself providing Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs have proliferated in recent years, and they have been controversial. Unlike the Open SUNY online degrees, the typical MOOC is free and does not permit students to earn credits or a degree.

Advocates have touted MOOCs as a way to expand cost-efficient learning opportunities, while critics have pointed to their dismal completion rate — roughly 7 percent — and questioned the quality of the classes.

What I find interesting — and problematic — is a public university has turned implementation of one of its highest-profile educational initiatives over to a for-profit, private company that launched in 2012.

SUNY officials have complained many students are not ready for college when they arrive on campus, and in 2012, a task force on remedial education was created to figure out how to address the problem. My question: How will online education help people who are already struggling to adapt to the demands of college? Will it really lead to a surge in college diplomas?

In a piece titled, “Online Education Can Be Good or Cheap, But Not Both,” writer Reihan Salam cautioned against expecting miracles from online education.

“Somehow we need to come up with better ways of engaging the large number of young Americans who aren’t destined to complete a bachelor’s degree, and who might need less in the way of help and hassle when they’re being offered real-world, job-specific skills,” Salam wrote. “Until then, be very skeptical of anyone who promises that online education is going to make it much cheaper to educate struggling students.”

There are a lot of problems with higher education right now, chief among them burdensome student debt and skyrocketing tuition. Will online education solve these problems?

I have my doubts.

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