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What Online Education Cannot Do

Online education is an accommodation to life's realities.

For years I denied that online education was in many ways inferior to physical campuses. But, now that I'm working at a research university, my views are evolving. There simply are things that online education cannot do. Denying the differences, the strengths and weaknesses of various "locations" of education, can lead us to become promoters of either online or physical campuses. We should instead admit the space in which an institution exists matters.

I once argued that online degrees awarded by leading universities could improve a regional economy. Now, I admit that the most a handful of degrees can do is improve the lives of a fraction of residents.

A quick tangent: most online degrees aren't from leading universities. I've taught in an online program at a regional university and online was not equivalent to the on-campus degree. I don't blame the instructors who did all they could to maintain academic standards. Online students tend to be non-traditional students, and that is complicated.

No matter how many people could be given the opportunity to earn degrees online in my native Central California, businesses would not migrate to the San Joaquin Valley. It isn't the educational credentials that matter: it is what a research university does that alters an economy. We have state universities in the Central Valley. We have a Christian college. We have community colleges. What we lack is a sufficient concentration of major research universities. Online education isn't going to offset that missing ingredient to financial stability and even growth.

A research university does things locally. It makes discoveries and creates things. A research university attracts… researchers. These are people with advanced degrees and above-average incomes. A university seems to create a culture, as the researchers, teaching professors, and students demand cultural outlets. Businesses come to cluster around a research university, offering internships to students and hiring graduates. There is an economic ecosystem around research universities.

Where I teach, the buildings are named for some of the most successful people in the world. Some are alumni, certainly, which also leads to a cycle of success. Alumni networks are powerful and important aspects of major universities. Online universities? You are not going to have the same social network form online.

There are many things you cannot do online. A robotics lab? Energy research? Medical research? Online education works best in the least valuable disciplines. STEM require physical space for advanced projects. Online universities are not going to be research universities, and even if they evolve to support some research, that work will be based in cities that already have other research centers.

The research at the university attracts millions of dollars in research funds. There are grant specialists, all working to help research professors and tenure-track faculty obtain funding support for yet more research. The university also sells intellectual property rights to private industry. Money matters in education, and successful research universities attract money.

You can overlay a map of major universities with median incomes and other measures of economic stability. San Francisco and Los Angeles depend as much on their universities as other qualities. The Bay Area would not be what it is without its impressive number of universities, including several leading research universities.

Online degrees will not revive, stabilize, or improve the Central Valley.

The problem is, I have no magical proposal to build the type of institution that would be a catalyst for change. Another college or second-tier university isn't sufficient. We need research centers and they need to be in Fresno and Bakersfield. Sadly, U.C. Merced is unlikely to be the top-tier U.C. campus we need. It is a step, though. A small step that is too far away from the urban centers.

Just some thoughts shaped by the limits of online universities.
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