“separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”

Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka made this abundantly clear in 1954.  My hope is that it can serve as a warning against efforts to segregate online components of education from “regular” and “traditional” classwork.

From the Associated Press on September 25, 2008:

Nearly 3.5 million students nationwide took at least one online course during the fall 2006 term, according to a report last year by the Sloan Consortium.

The integration of the Internet into the school environment is proceeding at a very slow pace.  One barrier to the evolution of the classroom may be philosophical – instead of a movement to incorporate online technology into all classes where it is appropriate, there instead appears to be a sharp distinction made between online and offline classes.

The Associated Press reports that the University of Illinois has had difficulty with the successful development of an online education program:

An $8.9 million online campus launched by the University of Illinois nine months ago has had disappointing enrollment and fewer course offerings than expected, but the man who created it isn’t giving up.

Instead, University of Illinois President Joseph White said he wants to turn the school’s Global Campus into an independent, accredited university to speed up development of degree programs.

So far 121 students have enrolled in just five degree programs – far short of the 9,000 students White projected would enroll by the end of the Global Campus’ first five years.

When it started offering classes in January, White hoped his professors would quickly create online programs in business, engineering and other high-demand fields.

For the most part, “That has not happened,” White told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not mad at anybody about that. I think we’ve come to realize that we have a university faculty that is at capacity.”

I think that it could be a mistake to move the University of Illinois Global Campus into a separate program, because it appears to be a serious mistake for the University of Illinois to segregate online learning from the general college experience.  If this philosophy is taken to the extreme and no resources are invested in bringing online technology into on-campus classrooms, the University of Illinois could lose a competitive edge as other universities bring their classes into the 21st century.

I find it interesting that President White believes that the current failures of the Global Campus are due to “a university faculty that is at full capacity.”  If online technology was being regularly incorporated into traditional on-campus classes, it would be easier for faculty to develop online education programs, because the development work would overlap with and build on the work already required for their “regular” classes.  The transition to fully online classes for appropriate subjects would be a lot easier in an environment that is already moving online.

The notion of segregating the online environment can be seen in the idea that online classes are going to immediately generate a substantial profit:

White envisioned the Global Campus as a revenue generator. He estimated a fully developed virtual campus would pump $10 million a year into the university system by providing affordable access to higher education for people who can’t easily take classes at a U of I campus.

It is hard to categorize the quest for profit as an automatic barrier to the development of online education.  However, if the University of Illinois sees online education as an independent revenue source, that goal may be hindering the development of the entire university.

It may actually be far more profitable to first integrate online technology into “regular” classes, then build online classes after that infrastructure is in place.  If the University of Illinois recognized the significance of online technology as necessary to the development of “regular” classes at the university, it would be concerned about maintaining its profit over the next decade as it competes with other schools that recognize the necessity and work to incorporate the technology into all appropriate classes.

Banishing online education into a separate program may ultimately hurt the overall success of the University of Illinois, if the move represents a philosophy that sees no value in integrating online technology into “regular” classes.  If online technology is effectively incorporated into all classes, the value (and long-term profit) of those classes should increase due to the enhanced ability to meet student needs and provide a more in-depth educational experience. If online technology is not incorporated into the entire university, the University of Illinois risks losing value as an educational institution when it competes with schools that actively integrate their classes into an online environment.

History teaches us that there is an implied inferiority associated with segregation, and I am concerned that if online education is considered separate from “regular” university classes, the online component may continue to be seen as a low priority for development.  In addition, if a university treats its online education component as inferior, I am concerned that this will impact the ability of the university to effectively market its online education program.

Returning to the report by the Associated Press that is quoted above, the current marketing of the Global Campus implies a sense of inferiority about its online program.  The vision of President White is described as “providing affordable access to higher education for people who can’t easily take classes at a U of I campus.”  It sounds like a consolation prize for people who can’t afford a “regular” education.  It demeans the value of the program by suggesting that if someone had more money, they could attend a “regular” university.  If the University of Illinois does not incorporate online technology into its “regular” classes, it will heighten the sense of inferiority assigned to online education and create the appearance of a premium value associated with the traditional classroom of the 20th century.

Which is ironic, because if the University of Illinois fails to incorporate 21st century advancements into its traditional classroom, it will lose value and relevance as an educational institution.

I believe that the future will inevitably involve an integration of online technology with the classroom environment.  This is not to say that I think that all education will move into a purely online world, but instead that the online environment will be used to enhance the traditional classroom experience when it is appropriate.  I believe that a failure to recognize the urgency and necessity of technological integration with the school environment creates a risk of becoming obsolete as an educational institution.

In my view, in order to be successful, the University of Illinois needs to integrate online technology into the entire university, and build purely online classes within that infrastructure.  This would legitamize the online environment as part of the “regular” university and help market online education as an effective education program, instead of as a consolation prize for those without sufficient financial resources.  It would allow faculty to integrate their “regular” work into the development of online programs, and bring the “traditional” classroom into the 21st century.  By pursuing a policy of segregation, the University of Illinois cannot effectively develop a credible online education program, nor can it be expected to remain competive as an educational institution.

The philosphical difference seems clear in how the University of Illinois is proceeding with its attempts to develop an online education program.  The promotion of a philosophy of segragation between the online and offline class environments will ultimately harm the successful development of both components of the university.  The online component will struggle to acheive credibility as an educational institution, and the offline component will become increasingly obsolete.


One Response to ““separate educational facilities are inherently unequal””

  1. Internet learning communities « Learning Document Says:

    […] It sounds like a great fit for web technology: the integration of curricula, “active” learning that has a focus on student involvement and learning outcomes, as well as a recognition that socialization is a part of the adult learning experience.  Online education is not a consolation prize for students facing barriers to an education – it is an important feature in the future development of all education. […]

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