Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Battlelines: Online vs. classroom education

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and one of the most broadly accomplished thinkers, writers and inventors of his time, believed his crowning achievement was the fathering of the University of Virginia. One wonders whether he would be quite so proud of his successors.

Last week, in an action accomplished without due process and without explanation, the school's board of visitors, UVA's quirky name for its governing directors, fired university President Teresa Sullivan. The board members have since refused to say any more.

So far, no one has even suggested that President Sullivan had failed UVA in any way; instead, she appears to be out of a job because she questioned whether cheap technology can actually cut the cost of a college education. And the business leaders on the board were not happy with her lack of enthusiasm. In business, a lack of enthusiasm can cost you your job

UVA, like other educational institutions across the country, receives fewer and fewer public dollars each year as state legislators look for places to slash budgets. Online education has been held up as the cost-effective solution that will allow these cuts without compromising the quality of the degrees conferred by universities.

Academic institutions are exactly the right places for contesting ideas like the benefits of online vs. classroom education to meet and to be researched and debated. They are the right place because they foster an environment of freedom rather than of fear and intimidation.

The board's action and its refusal to defend that action publicly fly directly in the face of the former and foster the latter. Thomas Jefferson would not be proud of that.

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