It’s taken some time, but the academic side of higher education, along with an attendant philosophy of open, shared knowledge, are finally asserting themselves in digital learning at universities throughout the country.
An open, elearning system is remarkably good news for Oklahoma, with its low college graduation rate and overall underfunded educational systems, just as long as higher education leaders here recognize that MOOCs and the soon-to-be launched DPLA are opportunities, not threats to their individual turfs.
Massive Open Source Online Courses (MOOCs) and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launches April 18, represent a turn away from the corporate model of education and places professors and teaching, and, of course, students, at the forefront of elearning. Corporate learning management systems, from Blackboard to Desire2Learn, have for too long dictated the terms of online intellectual engagement at universities, especially smaller, non-research colleges with limited funding. Online, for-profit colleges can never duplicate in any sustainable sense the academic rigor offered by our public and private universities, especially our leading institutions of knowledge.
Before I go further, let me give some background. MOOCs, which came into the academic scene a couple of years ago, are free online courses offered by some of the country’s premiere universities, such as Harvard and MIT. Anyone with an email address can take courses—“Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health,” “Write Like Mozart: An Introduction To Classical Music Composition,” and “Greek and Roman Mythology” to name just a few-- through systems such as Coursera and edX. The courses are not currently offered for credit, but that could soon change.
The Digital Public Library of America is a project began in 2010 that aims, according to one of DPLA’s founders, Harvard professor Robert Darnton, to “make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.” It will launch April 18 in an initial, limited form. The plan is to build the DPLA into what would be the largest bank of accessible knowledge ever in the history of mankind. The scope of the project simply can’t be understated.
Can you imagine having every written artifact in history and much more available to you in a matter of seconds? It will revolutionize information science, and could help universities save millions of dollars (maybe even more) through centralization.
At the philosophical core of MOOCs and the DPLA is the idea that knowledge and learning should be a shared, global experience, which will create better societies and advance mankind even further in the sciences and the arts. It’s the culmination, really, of the so-called Information Age in which we live. We’re not there yet, of course, but the trajectory is clear. It’s difficult to not look at all this in utopian terms, but there’s also a pragmatic side. In discussing the DPLA, Darnton writes:
What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?
The dilemma, of course, is the question over how are we going to pay for all this, and the answer is that we can’t afford to NOT go forward. Again, it’s difficult not to place it in sweeping terms. Our very existence on this planet may well depend on the main philosophy driving MOOCs and the DPLA. That doesn’t pay a professor’s salary, of course, but just as media outlets have had to adjust to the reality of the Internet so, too, must universities. I may risk ridicule here, but the money issue seems trivial when compared to the overall conception of what MOOCs and the DPLA offer mankind.
In practical terms, MOOCs could be offered for credit in the days ahead and a combination of taxpayer and institutional money could be used to subsidize online education to underserved populations throughout the world. The DPLA, funded now by foundations, has many different partners and stakeholders, and could conceivably survive financially under its current, fiscal model.
As I stated before, what I find so encouraging about MOOCs and the DPLA is the new surge of academic energy in online learning. I’ve taught online courses for some ten years now, and I’ve seen how corporate learning management systems have influenced pedagogy and class structure with mixed results. MOOCs are built around the professor; it’s not the professor building a course within a for-profit platform that will always increase in cost and will always have built-it obstacles to limit sharing or changing systems. MOOCs reassert the simple premise that it’s the instructor that determines course quality, not the technology itself, not a mid-level university administrator often without academic experience. It’s the instructor’s expertise, her credentials, her commitment that matters, not the underlying computer code, which in the case of MOOCs is open source and available to everyone. This is not to say that corporations don’t or can’t have a role in both MOOCs and the DPLA, but openness and sharing, their driving force, are the antithesis of monopoly and control.
What does all this mean for our state? The concepts of MOOC’s and the DPLA represent a huge opportunity for Oklahoma. It’s been my experience that online learning here overall has been somewhat slow to develop and hindered by limited funding, institutional bias and lack of foresight. For example, the former provost at Oklahoma State University, Robert Sternberg, now the president of the University of Wyoming, recently made it a point to argue that online learning had limitations. But these new trends in online learning could open the door for thousands of Oklahomans, who want a college degree but face life obstacles in attending a college as traditional students. The state has chronically lagged behind the national average in the number of its college graduates. MOOCs and the DPLA also have the capability, if managed appropriately, to help make a dent in the nation’s student-debt problem if courses remain free or reasonably priced while allowing students to take courses with some of the best professors in the country and in our state.
The new trends in online learning also open new opportunities for collaboration among our state’s many universities.
Why can’t GOP legislators simply set aside tax-cut proposals for this session and wait until next year to assess the economy and determine what impact a cut might have on the state budget?
That would be the prudent course of action. It would be responsible governance after years of budget cuts to education in this state. No one is rallying at the Capitol for a tax cut. The tax-cut proposals presented so far only really benefit the wealthiest in our state. The last time I checked, our state’s millionaires, well, were still millionaires and doing all right financially.
What we have now at the Capitol is a repeat of last year when House and Senate members failed to agree on a tax-cut approach. I hope it all falls to pieces like last year and ends in a stalemate, but the more sensible course of action would be for legislators to just agree to delay any cut until the overall national economy fully recovers and get serious about eliminating unneeded tax credits for corporations.
Here’s where we stand: Gov. Mary Fallin’s simple plan, contained in House Bill 2032, to reduce the top income tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent without offsets has now been recrafted by the Senate Finance Committee. The new proposal would lower the tax rate from 5.25 to 4.95 percent in 2015 and limit the transferability of some tax credits.
It’s not difficult to see the new proposal as a direct retaliation to the House where a committee voted down a previous Senate proposal that also delayed a tax cut and dealt with tax credits and deductions in the state’s tax code. The arguments between the House, Senate and Fallin’s office might well doom any tax-cut proposal. That’s good. But it could also lead to impulsive, last-minute legislating that could harm the state for years to come. That’s not so good.
Much like Fallin’s proposal, the new Senate offering makes little sense. Fallin’s proposal is simply a tax cut for a tax cut’s sake, reducing state revenues by $120 million annually just to proclaim look at us, we’re Republicans, and we cut taxes for rich people. The new Senate proposal begs the question: Why vote on a delayed tax cut when you can just wait until next year and accomplish the same thing?
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a state think tank, issued a statement about the new Senate plan that included this: “If we set aside a tax cut for now, lawmakers would still be free to approve one next year or to prioritize other investments, depending on the state's situation. It is irresponsible to make tomorrow's decision today.”
I don’t want to denigrate the overall approach to tax reform by state Sen. Mike Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. I’m opposed to any tax cut right now, but tax-code reform and modernization, if done responsibly and fairly, could add to state revenues and make any tax cut easier to absorb.
The larger issue remains the conservative quest to eliminate the state’s income tax, which has become a holy grail created by ideology not logic. Is it even possible to eliminate the income tax in a small state like Oklahoma without raising regressive sales taxes or other taxes that would only make our impoverished citizens here even poorer?
The state faces many problems, from inadequate education funding to pressing infrastructure needs. The state Capitol building is literally crumbling before our eyes, and there’s no will among the GOP to do anything about it. A small, token tax cut should be placed on hold this session. Let’s deal with our problems first.
The only tax-cut proposal left standing this legislative session is one that grants no financial relief for 43 percent of Oklahomans and is heavily weighted to benefit rich people here.
Let’s be clear: Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposal to drop the state’s top income tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent ignores difficult arguments over what changes are desperately needed in the state’s tax code and is simply a give-away to the wealthy here. Are the rich here even demanding a cut or is Fallin simply pandering? Why eliminate $120 million annually from state revenues? The average tax cut under the proposal is only $39 a year, but the top one percent of income earners get an average tax cut of $1,870.
This is so obviously apparent, the measure containing her bill, House Bill 2032, got stalled in the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, although conceivably it might well be passed by the time this is published. The political stall has to be construed, as well, as a direct retaliation after a House subcommittee killed a Senate bill that proposed lowering the top rate from 5.25 to 4.75 percent but also tackled the politically volatile issue of deductions and tax credits.
In essence, for all its own flaws, the dead Senate tax bill, SB 585, showed its creators had taken time and used a fair amount of energy to assess the state’s current tax code while thinking through the implications of revenue loss. Fallin’s proposal is merely a tax cut for a tax cut’s sake. Arguments that such a cut will lead to corporate relocations here or that it’s just a first step toward eliminating the income tax altogether are more than disingenuous. There’s little empirical evidence showing interstate tax policy affects economic development and the piecemeal erosion of state revenues is hardly sustainable in a state that is known as a place that now defunds education for no reason and has the lowest per-pupil spending rate in the region. I wrote about that issue here.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican, has indicated he wants to collaborate with House members about reforming the tax code before moving forward, but it appears the tension between the House and Senate and Fallin’s office is ongoing. Fallin’s bill is sponsored by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, a Lawton Republican and Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican.
Let’s hope we’re witnessing the start of a Republican squabble that will lead to the downfall of Fallin’s bill and any tax cut for this session. This would be a repeat of last year when Republican legislators couldn’t come to an agreement. By all means, have a serious conversation about the tax code and clean it up fairly, but passing a tax cut just to say you’ve passed a tax cut is not right.