Time For the Private Sector to Take a Risk: Budget Crisis, Online Education Platforms & the California State University System

Recently, the California State University (CSU) system announced that it “Faces [the] worst fiscal situation in its history.” Necessity, however, is the mother of innovation and fiscal challenges faced by CSU provide an opportunity for the bold to make substantial changes to completely remake the way CSU operates and how society thinks about higher education. But this opportunity requires private industry to take the lead and a risk.

Truly, this is a fiscal crisis of epic proportions. CSU serves over 400,000 students on 23 campuses across the state, but is faced with a budget cut of $500 million out of the State’s contribution of just over $2 billion to its budget. As result, CSU must make devastating cuts across board, including denying admission to 10,000 students it would otherwise accept and eliminating over 4,000 faculty and staff laid off. The ramifications will be felt for decades.

It’s easy to become bogged down in the severity of circumstances when faced with such challenges. Indeed, every stakeholder is likely to protect their particular turf by any means.
And while such reactions are understandable, they can be unfortunate because new opportunities are lost in the resulting conflict.

CSU has already been one of the leading institutions seeking to incorporate technology into the classroom. For instance, “[CSU] is running one of the nation’s largest pilt studies of e-texbooks.” This is the type of leadership that should be encouraged. So, while impending budget cuts hurt, they also provide another opportunity as well, but one that requires assistance by the private sector.

For most CSU students, the first two years of school are filled with General Education requirements -math, english and so forth. These courses are served in mass to tens of thousands of students across the state through the 23 campus. The exact same material is covered by all of these students. This raises the question: Why can’t [aren’t] these course be online?

If ever there was a perfect scenario for a blended learning environment, this is it. The CSU system is fully accredited school system with all of the infrastructure necessary. Instructors can upload lectures for students to watch on their own time, provided they complete the course during the alloted semester. Online testing programs provide competency based testing for students to develop their skills. Then, professors can organize live online sessions to focus on particular subjects for students that need additional help or human interaction. Costs are cut, education is maintained, if not improved and efficiency improves for all.

These ideas are not outlandish or even overly difficult to implement. One need only look at the success of 2tor to see that this has been done and can be rolled out on a large scale. An article profiling 2tor’s success in TechCrunch highlights the most important aspects:

USC’s Masters of Teaching program had about 80 students before partnering with 2tor, and all of them were on its California campus. Now it boasts almost 1,500 students enrolled in the program across 45 states and 28 countries. They all pay the same full tuition and get exactly the same degree. 2tor handles the website, supplying the students with webcams, creating online teaching materials in partnership with faculty, the logistics of finding local schools were the students themselves can practice teaching. The company shares in the tuition revenue.

The crisis faced by CSU is an opportunity to scale such a system to tens of thousands of students. There has never been a greater opportunity for every stakeholder to take a chance on something new, than now. Private industry, however, must take a risk. Instead of looking to the schools to adjust to technology, technology must be offered to the schools. The budget crisis faced by CSU and public higher education systems across the country means their attention is distracted: layoffs of faculty and staff, addressing student concerns, reorganization, these factors make it difficult to introduce anything new. The crisis itself must be addressed.

Although Udemy is not advocating for the use of any particular company, we do believe in creating platforms for education -after all that’s what we do best. Our platform, however, is open for all, and higher education requires a bit control. But at the end of the day, Udemy believes in education for all, regardless of who or what makes it possible.

That means all of us must put aside our conflicts and politics and charge forward, because in crisis come opportunity.