Former Governors Join the Online Education Debate

By Lillian Williams

Two former governors joined this week’s debate about online education. However, not without considerable fire from those with other views.

Former governors Jebb Bush and Jim Hunt are strong advocates for the expansion of online learning. This week they wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed.  which argues that state universities should push for more online courses.

(Bush served as governor of Florida from 1999-2007.  Hunt was governor of North Carolina from 1977 to 1985, and again from 1993-2001.)

Bush and Hunt argue that rising educational costs demand new ways to deliver higher education, including expansion of online offerings.  As captured below, the two contend that cash-strapped state governments should particularly look to e-learning:

“Rising costs and reduced government funding in the wake of an economic recession have resulted in financial burdens that our state universities have never known before, and it is clear that funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels. These financial realities are compounded by tech-savvy students demanding a high-quality education when, where and how they want it. Today’s students live lives that are divorced from the static, brick-and-mortar reality of institutions built for 19thcentury economic circumstances, leading Ralph Wolff, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, to conclude, “Our business model is broken.” Jebb Bush and Jim Hunt, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 6, 2011

But not so fast, argues Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University.  In an Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, also on Oct. 6, Neem contends online courses can not match the capability of face-to-face courses to produce environments that foster critical thinking skills. Face-to-face courses do a better job at things like stimulating curiosity, Neem argues:

“This does not mean that we should reject technology when it can further learning, as in new computer programs that help diagnose students’ specific stumbling blocks. But computers will never replace the inspiring, often unexpected, conversations that happen among students and between students and teachers on campuses. Because computers are not interpretive moral beings, they cannot evaluate assignments in which students are asked to reflect on complicated ideas or come up with new ones, especially concerning moral questions. Fundamentally, computers cannot cultivate curiosity because machines are not curious.”  Johann Neem, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 6, 2011

It’s your turn. We’d like to hear your feedback concerning their arguments about online education.

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