Inside Higher Ed’s survey about faculty views of online education is on point. Since I had participated by filling out the survey, I was curious about its findings. My interest surged after reading the related article by Steve Kolowich -- who noted that for professors “the rise of online education excites them more than it frightens them.” According to the survey’s composite data, I fit the profile of Academic Everyman. So, to flesh out the statistical bones, here are some observations by an archetypal Old Prof who wonders as he wanders through the new terrain of distance learning.
I do wonder why so many colleagues fear or avoid online education. It’s established, expanding, and improving – and is an undeniable part of college teaching and learning. At a flagship state university, online education is less of a threat to job security than is the administrative penchant to hire adjuncts at a relatively low salary to teach traditional courses. Learning how to teach online probably would be one of the best steps a professor could take to assure viability in the 21st century. The most dysfunctional response by a professor today would be to dismiss or ignore both the technology and the social consequences online learning has.
Online education is neither simple nor sinister: I am not so much low tech as slow tech -- and found that being ready to teach an online course takes a long time. But the time lapse falls into two markedly different phases. To convert a graduate course I had taught in “traditional mode” for many years, last September I sought out my campus’s director of distance learning programs offered by the university library and met with her and the DL staff for a long series of work sessions and carefully monitored progress reports. At each juncture the DL staff patiently yet firmly showed me why and how it was important to understand the logic and logistics of course preparation and presentation. One had to have course materials – including syllabus, weekly content, discussion topics, assignments, and links to materials – clearly in place before starting to teach.
What I found was that the more one learned about the format and understood the strengths and limits of the online technology, the more interesting and effective teaching and learning would be. Best of all, the DL professionals showed me how I could use imaginatively and effectively historical photographs, old newsreels, and archival documents as visual sources that animated the teaching and learning. They also drove home the need to gain copyright permissions and make technical arrangements to “stream” historical films, and helped me do both. In sum, they combined their stern warnings with interest and assistance. The happy result was that by November my course materials had met their standards – and I had their blessings to proceed to the second, sluice gate: official approval of my DL course by the university’s faculty
The official approval process was markedly different from the course preparation experience. It combined the slow pace of regular course proposal with added delays in deliberations because it was a Distance Learning course, especially at the higher levels of universitywide review. Approval and encouragement came promptly from my department and our college curriculum committee and from my dean – all of whom had an interest in having our college venture into online courses – and who understood that time was of the essence if an online course were to be available soon to students. However, at the next levels, the Senate committee reviews involved little in the way of acquiring skills or rethinking teaching design or course substance. It was characterized by objections or clarifications about relatively small details and was marked by long periods of waiting for word of approval to go on to the next step.
After subcommittee review, the most surprising finding was that in the Senate Council, and the full Faculty Senate, there were obstructionist colleagues. One professor who was a senator raised objections and routinely voted against DL course proposals on the grounds that he did not approve of distance learning as part of the university’s curriculums. The merits of a course topic, contents, proposed presentation, significance of readings and assignments and other substantive matters evidently were not pertinent to his filibusters and dissenting vote. This meant that professors who took initiative to transform existing traditional courses – or create new ones – in online mode faced unreasonable obstacles. One phase promoted thoughtful innovation; the second phase often was filled with delay and distrust
Online education is neither inherently inexpensive nor efficient: If university officials embrace distance learning as a quick fix to offer courses at low cost to a large number of students, they are mistaken. Preparation and teaching are labor-intensive. Those “guardians of standards” who are skeptical about the quality of a proposed online course struck me as wrongheaded given that there is great variance in quality among traditional courses. There may well be a latent function of fear operating here – namely, some professors are worried that their traditional courses may ultimately be in jeopardy with the proliferation of large enrollment online courses. I doubt this is a widespread or warranted fear among tenured professors. A more rational concern would be that one’s failure to be able or willing to incorporate online learning in blended form with “real” courses would have declining appeal both to prospective students and to deans and provosts.
Budget-minded provosts and deans may dream of online courses as a lucrative source of new revenue streams. However, there is no guarantee that creating an online course or program is inexpensive. Nor is there any certainty that a university will lower the tuition price – even if the online course cost were eventually to cost less than a “traditional course.” All the variables of effectiveness, efficiency, cost and price are subject to the same complexities, adjustments, and vacillations of any higher education program offering.
Established universities would be wise to heed the innovations taking place in all sectors of postsecondary education. I have had the opportunity for conversations with Jorge Klor de Alva, who has held academic leadership positions with the University of Phoenix as its president and, now, as president of its affiliated Nexus Research and Policy Center. He warrants the attention of traditional universities because prior to joining University of Phoenix, he was a tenured professor both at UC Berkeley and at Princeton. In short, he has the experience to talk about both traditional and for-profit higher education in their respective responses to how pedagogy has changed with technological innovations. Most surprising to me was to learn how much attention and seriousness the University of Phoenix pours into the creation and evaluation of its online courses. Its faculty and staff's attention to detail in working with instructors, designing courses, monitoring student participation and learning have been a source of innovation that often was underappreciated by traditional colleges.
Online education makes history by being part of higher education’s history: Online education may be new, especially in such particulars as Internet technology. But what the luddite faculty opponents ought to recognize is that online education is merely the latest in a long succession of teaching innovations that are fueled by a combination of technological and social changes. In other words, online education is very much part of higher education’s heritage:
New teaching media have long attracted outstanding scholars. For example, several years ago my wife came across a packet of letters in a secondhand store in Washington, D.C. She gave them to me because the recipient was a professor. It turns out that the packet contained the exchanges and comments of a correspondence course from 1891. Most spectacular was our finding that the professor reading and grading the correspondence examination essays was Richard Ely – at that time a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, who soon would join the University of Wisconsin, where he would lead one of the most influential economics departments of all time. He was no less than a founder and president of the American Economic Association.
To discover that Ely found time to teach in a new format and took seriously the evaluation of student correspondence courses was a revelation. It showed that more than a century ago, a famous professor took the plunge to participate enthusiastically in an innovative format for college level teaching and learning. It would be comparable today to having the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman responding individually to an undergraduate’s e-mails as part of Krugman’s online course.
Between the end posts of Richard Ely teaching correspondence courses in 1891 and a distinguished professor offering online courses in 2012, there is a rich heritage of top-flight professors who embrace new media as a way of reaching extended student audiences. Today much of the publicity in higher education involves the role of Stanford, Harvard and MIT venturing into “massively open online courses.”
Often overlooked is that this is a variation on a familiar theme in higher education. In 1956 ABC devoted two hours of Sunday afternoon programming to a series produced by Bell Laboratories Science Series that featured as host professor Frank Baxter of the University of Southern California, cast in the role of “Dr. Research.” The one-hour shows included “Our Mister Sun” about solar energy, fuel, and food; and a show about blood and the circulatory system, “Hemo the Magnificent.” Fifteen years later, PBS attracted a loyal, large national audience in 1969-70 when it broadcast each Sunday evening an episode of rofessor Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation – a series so popular that it compelled viewers to look forward to the television equivalent of western civ, instead of watching sitcoms and professional sports shows offered by the major networks.
Implications for established higher education: The Inside Higher Ed survey reinforces the point that online education persists as one of many strands that coexist in higher education. Last week, for example, a sub-theme about the forced resignation of the president of the University of Virginia evidently was the Board of Visitors’ concern that new innovations such as online courses were being ignored in favor of saving classics.
The problem with such characterizations is that they set up false dichotomies – such as the wrongheaded belief that classics are at odds with online learning. My own experience is that this is not the case. For example, the skilled, patient director of distance learning programs who made my immersion into online education both effective and enjoyable brings to her role an academic background in information science – and, ahem, in classics! I fortuitously discovered this fruitful combination by the motto at the bottom of her e-mails: “Fluctuat nec mergitur” – “She is tossed by the waves, but is not drowned.”
That’s not a bad motto for dealing with innovation and flux in our teaching and learning. It leads me to suggest that for higher education in the 21st century, consideration of online education -- plus lectures, seminars, tutorials, independent studies, internships, field work, all of which coexist and cross-fertilize one another without eliminating any one format -- brings to mind the Latin motto of Claremont Graduate University : “multi lumina, lux una” -- “many lamps, one light...”
John Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
Diversity is a core value of Guilford College, where I serve as president. It challenges us to welcome a variety of persons and perspectives.
Much talk of diversity is about race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. But what about diversity of perspectives and how we treat that kind of diversity? Every college and university has Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and developers, occupiers and capitalists, vegetarians and carnivores, and fans of Fox News and NPR. Diversity is a matter of listening to all sides with deference and a mind that is open to new ideas.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are still rights and wrongs and self-evident truths: Hate speech is evil, evolution happened, the earth circles the sun, and the Red Sox are the best team in baseball. Apart from those absolutes, isn’t being a sanctuary for unfettered dialogue the essence of a college education?
It is in theory but not always in practice, including here. Many believe that Guilford is a left-wing echo chamber where it is easier to be accepted if you are a social activist who abhors capitalism, sports and the American flag. Many believe this – fairly or not – of many colleges and universities. It’s not wrong to hold those views, but it is wrong to think that only those views are proper or that Guilford is really that much of a one-party state. It’s also perplexing given how much my colleges’s Quaker founders risked in promoting peace and tolerance.
When I came to Guilford in 2002, I heard about a short-lived tradition of the men’s soccer team to rise before dawn on February 6 and chalk the campus to commemorate Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They did it, one claimed, to annoy the hippies. Or consider this: Why must we take precautions against disruptions when we invite Tony Blair or Ralph Reed to speak but not Bill Clinton?
A parent walked out on me because he claimed that his daughter was not sent here to have her hard-core socialism questioned or even discussed. Yet having your beliefs challenged might change them or just make them stronger. President Kennedy reminded us that, "Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others."
Other institutions wrongheadedly embrace the other extreme. State legislatures and boards of trustees threaten loss of tenure or expulsion for being gay, opposing war, promoting choice, protesting economic inequality or questioning authority. Right-wing academics hallucinate that smart liberal kids become coddled academics or social workers and smart conservatives go into business and make money. They miss opportunities like the majestic generosity of Guilford students increasing their own activity fees to provide financial aid for the neediest among them.
When I was growing up, my family perpetually argued. Both of my parents believed that FDR was a covert communist. Their Disneyland was small government and low taxes. Then, I journeyed from being a right-wing Republican to an independent who is an economic conservative and social liberal. At Syracuse University, I joined a March on Washington against the Vietnam War. Of course, I still had enough Republican DNA that I did not hitchhike to D.C. or sleep in a church with my friends. I flew first-class and bedded at something like the Ritz Carlton.
The advice I give students, and that I hope faculty members at all colleges will join me in promoting, goes something like this:
Think it possible you might be mistaken. To paraphrase Churchill, truth is like an elusive butterfly — gleaming, fluttering, settling for an instant with wings fully spread to the sun, then vanishing in the shades of the forest. What you believe depends on the slanting glimpses you had of the color of its wings.
Avoid groupthink where everyone shares the same beliefs or think they do. Faculty, staff and even students in trendy, self-validating clusters tend to delude themselves that the people around them are roughly representative of the general society. This assumption is tough to overcome because it is so soothing.
Dump the stereotypes. Dave Barry and others ask if we really believe all red state residents are dumb, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling, Bible-bullying, redneck, sweatshop tycoons who claim government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it; or that all blue-state residents are godless, unpatriotic, ear-pierced, Volvo-driving, latte-sucking, tofu-chomping, tax- crazed bleeding-hearts who presume people shouldn’t have to work and beg our enemies, "Please don’t hurt me."
Seek out people with different beliefs. People want to be around others who think and act like themselves. Imagine what a cataract of horrors it would be for some Harvard University professors to be on the same faculty with a member of the Tea Party. But beyond that difficulty lies an opportunity for understanding and compromise. Imagine if the politicians in Washington could collaborate to get something done rather than demonize each other, spew half-truths, and bankrupt us all.
Like Mark Twain, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”
Protect the rights of others to be different. Conformity imprisons liberty. Don’t be a hostage to prejudice or a bystander to intolerance. Get in the way. Remember what Voltaire said about dissent: "I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it."
Kent John Chabotar is president of Guilford College. This column is adapted from his remarks at this year's Guilford commencement.
When I started teaching writing at City College in 2002, I took a poll and every one of my students had a cell phone. I told them that I didn’t have one. It was meant to be a humanizing detail, an icebreaker. I explained how I thought that phones that you carry with you were invasive and distracting and thus dangerous. I should have, but didn’t, ask them to write about the topic.
Instead, I took advantage of the good feelings in the room as an opportunity to outline my cell phone policy, strictly enforced for years: No cell phones in class, ever. If I saw one out or heard a ring, I would ask the student to leave. I wanted to make the point that while students are in class, or doing anything for that matter, they should give the task at hand their undivided attention. It should be noted that there was no equivalent policy against doodling, staring out the window (in the rare instances when there was one), or staring at a classmate’s tight clothes.
In 2006, after my first child was born, I was able to resist getting a cell phone, to the amusement and frustration of my friends and family for another two years. Finally, when my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was commuting twice a week 90 miles upstate to teach, I came home one day to find a pay-by-the-minute phone activated for me. For a year and a half, I used the phone only when necessary (it was amazing how difficult it had become to make plans with someone — "We’ll meet around eight, somewhere downtown; I’ll text you the exact time and place around then. Oh right, you still don’t have a cell phone"). I’d show off my bulky, bare-bones phone to classes, so they could have a laugh at how primitive it was at the beginning of the semester, and then I’d still drop the hammer on my strict cell phone policy.
But then, all of the sudden, something changed in me, I finally wanted a decent cell phone. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted an iPhone. It was just that I wanted a phone that I could do things with, like kill smug pigs with exploding birds or find out where the traffic was in Queens without waiting until the radio’s report on the 8s or 1s of the hour. So I bought a relatively cheap smartphone.
I didn’t tell my students, nor did I dare, for fear of setting a bad example, pull it out in their presence. But within a week, the students must have somehow sensed something different in me. Requests never made before began popping up. During an open-book reading test, a student asked if he could use a downloaded version of the book on his phone. All right, I told him. A few days later, in a different class, as I was putting an assignment’s instructions on the board, a student asked if he could take out a cell phone to snap a photo of the instructions instead of writing them down. Why not?
Now I start every semester teaching the difference between the register of socializing and academic English by having students translate their informal, acronym-filled text communiqués into formal academic prose. They get it instantly. "LMAO" gets changed to "I find that funny." "OMG shes such a skank" becomes "Wow, she is dirty." The longer and more incomprehensible the message, the more I learn. How else would I have known that "whip" can mean car or that "white boys" may refer to rolling papers?
All of these experiences had only suggested to me that cell phones might be useful as educational tools to a very limited extent. For some time, I continued to believe that by and large they still didn’t belong in the classroom. Until recently, that is. A few months back, I was listening to a radio program about Tony Schwartz, a New York field-recording specialist, whose work dates back to the 1950s. I was in the car, stopped at a light, and without a pen to write down information about an upcoming event on Schwartz, I pulled out my phone and, in an instant, recorded a voice memo. Later, after listening to the voice memo, I was reminded that I wanted to record a poem I had been working on. I printed out a draft, and instead of opening my laptop, I took out the phone.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of teaching writing is reading student papers that are filled with myriad, obvious anacoluthons. The mistakes themselves are not what frustrate. Instead, it’s how these mistakes suggest the students didn’t even bother to read their own work even once before handing it in; it’s how the students have ignored the most oft-repeated proofreading advice given by writing instructors of all levels (and one I repeat with each assignment): read it aloud before you hand it in. But now, it all of the sudden occurred to me, as I was sitting there with the printed poem and the cell phone, I can make them do this. I can make them read their work out loud and demonstrate this by having them upload the file online. I can make them do this all before they hand in a final draft of a paper.
Last semester teaching developmental writing at Queensborough Community College, I gave my students explicit instructions on how to record files of themselves reading their papers, both on their phones and in the computer lab. I also demonstrated for them how fast they should read, making a point to demonstrate with a document that had errors. I would interrupt my deliberate cadence on the error, which from the snickers I could tell they’d all heard too, asking for suggestions on correcting the mistake. After correcting the mistakes, I would start my recording again until I did a reading that didn’t have any writing mistakes (as opposed to reading mistakes, which I say are fine as long as they are corrected with a rereading).
The student responses to these assignments have been mostly positive. However, some students struggle with technology already, and they are none too eager to have to use it some more. Others resent having to do more work than they think they are supposed to do for a writing assignment. A fair amount, though, have grown to appreciate how much this technique helps them -- and not only in finding grammatical mistakes. More than one student has reported that they noticed their arguments or narratives don’t make sense when they read them out loud. My own sense is that the student progress made this semester has exceeded the student progress of previous semesters.
I should say the process isn’t a panacea. One student, who has explained in other writing projects that she is at college because her parents are forbidding her to go cosmetology school, uploads files that sound like an LP sped up to 45 rpm. I reply to her postings, asking her to slow down her reading. She has slowed down some, but not completely. Regardless, she has done the work, and while at the beginning of the semester I could barely understand one of her sentences, now she is writing papers in which there are still numbers of run-ons sentences, but clear sentences.
Another student, who is registered with our SSD (Services for Students with Disabilities) office, writes almost exclusively in simple sentences. If I assign a two-page paper, maybe I’ll get two complex sentences from him. When I listen to his readings, his voice is flat and mechanical. There were very few mistakes in his sentences to begin with. My challenge of helping him learn how to subordinate and coordinate thoughts has not been accomplished with these recording assignments. Many students have become competent and confident writers.
I have started grading the papers while listening to the students’ readings of them. When the students read at deliberate pace, I have more than enough time to highlight mistakes and begin my comments in the margins. When the information from the student is clear and cogent, I put a check next to the sentences. Again, my sense is I have never gone through so many papers giving almost nothing but checks. At least three times this semester, I’ve written on a student paper, "this is one of the best papers I have ever read in this class." I can’t remember writing that once before in my two years at Queensborough.
Recently a colleague at Queensborough stopped by my office to chat. He mentioned he had to ask someone to leave his class that day because she was using her cell phone during class. He knows of my strict cell phone policies of the past. “It just drives you crazy,” I sympathized with him.
He then noticed the headphones on my desk. “What are you listening to?” he asked. “Student papers,” I told him. I explained the project and how I was encouraging students to use their cell phones to make the recordings. “I’ve finally surrendered,” I offered, apologizing for abandoning the no-cell-phone-ever hardliners.
The generous interlocutor my colleague is, he mused, “I guess you’re right, we have to find a way to make them useful in class.” That wasn’t what I was thinking or intending, but there you go.
Jed Shahar is assistant professor in the Basic Education Skills Department of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.
Long gone are the days when academic humanists could sit like dragons astride their hoards of high culture. Today, we have become contrarians, for better or worse, battling adversity from without and uncertainty within. And yet, what we have to offer is needed now more than ever.
Today’s undergraduates are the first generation raised on the Internet and social media. Connected from early childhood to vast streams of information and entertainment, they flit freely among them and expect their technologies, mobile and omnipresent, to answer every question. They access a vast and exponentially increasing sea of "information," a term that seems to encompass anything and everything that can be expressed in words or images, true or false, momentous or momentary. Everything in their world seems to encourage speed, multitasking and perpetual connectivity. The vast proliferation of data only a click away invites surfing rather than digging deep, cutting and pasting rather than reflecting and evaluating.
My experience of more than 40 years in the humanities classroom tells me that many of even today’s brightest students are less prepared and willing than students a generation ago to wrestle with material that does not yield easy or immediate answers. It sounds like the widespread complaint about shortened attention spans, but I think something else is going on as well. We are bucking a zeitgeist that makes speed of the essence, makes focusing on one thing at a time seem lazy, and doing only one task for an extended period feel like wasting time. Students are eager to get to the "bottom line" and then go on to the next thing. Humanities education offers the opportunity to slow down, to savor, to feast the mind at leisure, but fewer young men and women want to take us up on it.
It is not easy today to imagine a role for the humanities that does not involve it becoming something else -- something faster, sexier, and more clearly connected to the perceived demands of the day. Indeed, much of the humanities curriculum has been moving in those directions. I would argue, however, that we stand to lose our claim to a central place in the curriculum if our only response is an attempt to catch up to our students’ speed or vie with them in coolness. Instead, we need to reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.
In recent years, I have become more direct in explaining the goals and values of the kind of learning we undertake in my classes, and more explicit in explaining the choice of texts we are reading. Many students, even at a place like Duke, where I teach, have surprisingly slight acquaintance with cultures other than the ones in which they grew up, and need to be convinced of the value to them of learning about those cultures.
Their lack of familiarity with this material is not altogether a bad thing, however. For students with little or no prior knowledge, classes in the humanities offer the chance not merely to encounter but rather to live with texts, ideas and works of art. Close reading, creative reflection, cogent response, spoken and written: these are skills the humanities foster and our students need, even if they do not recognize it yet. Students in successful humanities classes learn not only to examine in detail the workings of a novel, painting, piece of music or film, but also to step back and frame that work in its cultural context and ask how it intersects with our own.
If we can just get them into our classrooms.
The student body’s current view of the humanities isn’t the only force contributing to uneasiness within the halls of academe. Liberal arts education is still buffeted by the winds of the economic crash that focused the attention of students and their parents ever more firmly on what might help one to land a job after college. Support of higher education at the state level has shrunk so dramatically that "elite" undergraduate education, long a major force in ensuring social mobility, not least through the great state universities and in an earlier generation through the GI Bill, is increasingly affordable only for young people from the financial and social elite. More students thus have to borrow more, and the amount Americans owe on their student loans has now outstripped credit card debt. How is reading Shakespeare or studying Chinese art going to help with that?
Add to all this attacks on the humanities from within higher education — like the recent threat of shutdown for “obscure departments” in classics and German at the University of Virginia — and it feels like the perfect storm. How to weather it? The humanistic answer, I suppose, is that humanists must be true to themselves while making the case for our centrality in higher education patiently, persistently, and more effectively.
We will not prosper in the long run by saying we offer better job training, though indeed many of the skills one can learn in the humanities classroom (clear writing, careful analysis, cogent argumentation) are crucial to success in the world outside. Nor can we claim to offer solutions to the world’s problems, though we can say they will hardly be solved without the help of the sort of critical, open-minded and open-hearted thought that the humanities uniquely promotes.
What we must do is insist — loudly and repeatedly — that liberal education aspires to make people not merely successful but also fulfilled, not merely autonomous thinkers but also contributing citizens, engaged and creative participants in the community. We must show how grounding in the humanities can put political and social issues into perspective and provide new perspectives on our values and beliefs.
Humanities can play a particularly important role today in countering certain strains of presentism and provincialism in American society by exploring other ways of understanding what it means to be human and alive in the cosmos. This can add particular value to the study of works that are chronologically or culturally remote from us, such as the epics and dramas of Mediterranean antiquity that have been at the center of my own activities as a teacher and scholar.
These works are examples of what my friend Robert Connor, a great humanist and a wonderful teacher, refers to as “extreme literature” because they deal with extreme situations and emotions. Such works puzzle and repel, fascinate and excite all at once, precisely because we can recognize the common human struggles and desires represented in them, and yet find the way they are represented, understood, and acted upon strange, uncanny, perverse, marvelous, repugnant, or any combination of such things.
To take but one example: the students with whom I have read Homer’s Iliad many times over the years tend initially to find the extreme emotions and destructive behavior of its hero, Achilles, repellent and hardly heroic. As they read on and take the measure of the world the poem portrays, they see that Achilles himself is struggling against the limitations of the value system that underlies the conventions of epic. They rethink the meaning of the whole poem when they reach the final, unexpected movement of the plot, where Achilles reconciles, not with the world of battle and heroic self-assertion, but with an acceptance of the bonds of common humanity. Priam has come to the Greek camp to beg for the release of his son’s corpse, the remains of Achilles’ great enemy Hector, whom he slew and whose body he desecrated in his wrath. Priam’s grief cuts through that rage, and Achilles, who knows his death will follow soon, grieves in turn for his own dead father.
In the final book of Homer’s Iliad, the circle of human connections is completed, and brings us to a new place from which to reflect on solidarity, forgiveness and love. Homer’s world, so different from our own, provides an experience of surprisingly intense emotion, of intellectual challenge, and even of self-recognition in ways we could hardly have expected. What might it mean to confront the premises by which you have learned to live and find them wanting? And who might you then become?
These are the kinds of questions that the study of humanities asks us to confront, and allows us to ponder and to answer for ourselves in our own ways. Getting to that point, however, requires exactly the kind of patient opening to the experience of the text that students today often seem unprepared and less than eager for. It is admittedly not an easy task: it involves a paradoxical combination of precision and imagination, analysis and empathy. The reward for making this effort is real, however, and substantial. It goes beyond the appreciation of a particular text, object, historical moment or culture. Students who engage seriously with works like the Iliad can expand their sensibilities and deepen their understanding of passions and aspirations that belong to all of us but are expressed in ways we could hardly have imagined. And that in turn can lead us to reflect on our own self-understanding, our ways of feeling, knowing and confronting the unknown.
Peter Burian is a professor of classical studies and dean of the humanities at Duke University.
“What’s the one thing you’d change?” asked the dean at a well-known New York institution.
As a 30-year veteran of teaching in graduate school business programs (as an adjunct), I may have hesitated before answering. But having just completed my third year in law school, I didn’t miss a beat.
"I’d do away with the Internet in the classroom," I answered. "It is simply too distracting. Kids get sucked in by Facebook, e-mail, and shopping. They simply can’t participate in class discussion."
“How is that different from doing crossword puzzles in our day?” countered the dean.
"The temptation is so much greater today. Seventy-five percent of the class wasn’t doing crosswords back then. But 75 percent are on Facebook during class today."
Computers and the Internet were supposed to revolutionize education – from pre-K through grad school. And while there have been isolated examples of teaching-learning breakthroughs – think Scholastic’s Read 180, Khan Academy – most of the so-called technological advances I’ve seen are decidedly unimpressive.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been allowed to sit in on M.B.A. classes being offered in an online-only program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. I was encouraged to look at the program by John Katzman, the founder of 2tor, the private company that is providing both the technology platform and marketing expertise for UNC. I’ve known John for a very long time, and we’ve disagreed about politics, education, and business more often than we’ve agreed. But ever since my very first article – comparing my experiences at the Naval Academy and Brown University – some 35 years ago, when one of us suggests the other explore something out of our comfort zone, we usually grit our his teeth and try it.
An outspoken critic of online education, I did that with the Kenan-Flagler new online M.B.A. program. And I’m now convinced that what Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the “MBA@UNC” is about to do for higher education.
It is unlike any online educational experience I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t involve "class capture" – the use of a camera focused on a professor lecturing in the front of the room. Nor does it involve self-paced “interactive” exercises where students read passages on their computer screen and answer questions (correctly) before being allowed to advance to the next chapter. And there is real communication, not only between the teacher and the students, but among the students themselves.
The Kenan-Flagler program uses a proprietary technology platform developed by 2tor. The M.B.A. program wasn’t 2tor’s first entry into online education. The company also provides the platform for graduate programs in teaching and social work at the University of Southern California and a master's in nursing through Georgetown; it is about to launch an LL.M in law with Washington University in St. Louis. But having taught in M.B.A. and graduate business programs at Fordham and New York Universities, I felt most comfortable assessing the MBA@UNC initiative.
And what I saw truly surprised me. UNC has created a virtual classroom that is more intimate than 90 percent of the seminars I’ve taught in or taken. That’s because a quarter of every student’s computer screen is a grid of the dozen other students in the class – in close-up!
Within minutes of signing into the class – and this particular class was “live” (referred to as synchronous) – I realized that each of us was sitting in a front-row seat. The professor was going to call on each of us. He could also capture and share our computer screen with the other students.
Which meant that all 12 of the students in the class were going to contribute. There was no perusing Facebook, no e-mailing, and no shopping during this 90-minute class. Although it may be hard to believe, there was closer intimacy in this virtual classroom than in most of the dozen-person seminars I’ve experienced in law school. Perhaps it was the close-up of each person’s face in the upper quadrant of the screen. But I got a sense that each student knew that he or she was expected to contribute to the class discussion. And that shared expectation raised the bar for all.
I was expected to prepare for the live (synchronous) class by watching three hours of videotaped (asynchronous) material on my own time. And when I didn’t understand something – which was the case in the financial accounting class -- I could rewind and watch the section again.
For me, these asynchronous classes were the biggest surprise of the Kenan-Flagler program. Instead of talking heads, they were more like highly produced Nightline or NOVA documentaries than lectures. They were a combination of field-produced segments, explanatory graphics and animations, and well-rehearsed stand-up pieces. And the results were remarkably engaging.
The most surprising aspect of my Kenan-Flagler audit was the sense of community that emerged from the computer screen. At the end of the 90-minute synchronous seminar, several students “stayed late” to ask the professor questions. And two students paired-off after that to grab a beer together – virtually.
When I logged off, I began thinking about my own teaching – and ongoing learning. I immediately began rooting around the Coursera catalogue. (Coursera is, of course, the much-hyped, VC-backed joint venture of free online courses from Berkeley, Michigan, Penn, Princeton and Stanford.) And I’m wondering if any of their offerings will be able to match the interactivity or high-production value of the Kenan-Flagler courses. What’s the trade-off between free and courses that as part of an M.B.A. program add up to $45,000 annually?
What was clear, however, was that my advice to the dean about turning off the Internet in the classroom was not wrong but only half-hearted. One of the Kenan-Flager students had said to me during a break that she had chosen MBA@UNC because she wanted a graduate school experience that reflected how business is being done today and will be done tomorrow; not how it was done 20 years ago. She wanted something “transformative.”
I think she found it. I sent the link for the Kenan-Flagler MBA@UNC program to my friend the dean. He needs to see the future of higher education.
Steve Cohen is co-author of Getting In! While 2tor provided the author with access to the course, he did not and does not receive money from the company.
I remember how bad I felt when I assigned my first F. The night before I turned in my grades, I could barely sleep; I kept tossing and turning, worrying about the student who was about to fail. I thought this failure was going to ruin this kid’s future; he was doomed, I was certain, to a life of meaningless jobs for sub-minimum wage because his first-year writing teacher failed him. I equated his failing with my failure: He failed by not doing the work, and I failed him on an existential level because I was not able to keep him from failing.
As my mentors at the time explained to me, it did indeed get easier to give Fs. One of the reasons was linguistic; I stopped saying I was "giving" grades and instead switched to the language of "recording what the student earned." In this case, semantics did make a difference, but, truthfully, in the 15 years since I "recorded" that first F, I have never felt good about it. Contrary to what many students believe, giving — ahem, recording — failures is not fun. Teachers do not celebrate when students fail; and many, myself included, often bend over backward to find ways to allow students to pass. We listen to their stories, their excuses, their reasons, and we give an extension or some extra credit. We work hard — sometimes harder than the students themselves — to help them pass.
I never really questioned this practice until I stepped into the dean’s role in academic services. At my institution, the dean of academic services oversees the granting of incompletes, leaves of absence and withdrawals (both voluntary and required), and any and all academic issues students may be having. In practical terms, this means that almost every student who is struggling academically sooner or later comes to my attention. While my role is to counsel students about academic issues, inevitably their personal lives — mental, social, physical, emotional -- are wrapped up in their academic issues, so I hear stories that range from the tragic to the sad to the more mundane.
As dean, I spend much of my day listening to tales about dying grandparents, sick siblings, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, family troubles, roommate troubles, classroom troubles — the list is endless. In many ways, I am still the softie I was 15 years ago; I often believe students' stories — even the most fantastical ones — until they give me a reason to doubt them. I have learned, though, how to balance my (perhaps) naïve sense of trust with the realities of needing documentation. It does take some skill to express sympathy in one breath and in the very next breath ask for a copy of an obituary. Where I have noticed the biggest shift in my thinking, however, has been with the issue of giving Fs.
Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I’m sure at this point some of my readers are thinking that I am being too quick to judge Sally, that there must be extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration. About 50 percent of the time, those readers are correct: something has happened in Sally’s life that has caused her to disappear from the classroom. Sometimes that situation is the common one of a first-year student not sure how to handle the sudden freedom of college and deciding to spend too much time on the social. But there are other scenarios, too: Sally has been very ill; Sally has lost a parent; Sally has a learning disability but thought she could handle college without accommodations; Sally is anxious, depressed, addicted, or a combination of all three.
I always reach out to students when I hear they are in trouble. Some respond but most don’t. If Sally does come to see me, I patiently listen as she tells her story. Sometimes, I might cry right along with her. There are indeed days when I have to close my door to grieve over what I have just heard, weeping for the complicated and overwhelming lives some of our students lead. But even in these worst cases, when Sally’s story breaks me, I still think Sally should fail.
If Sally’s circumstances have indeed been difficult — and they often are — I will look for ways to get her back on track. I might help her get an appointment with the counseling center or walk her down to register with our disability coordinator. I will explain the academic support services we have on campus and show her how to register for those. I will help her think about ways summer courses or interim courses might allow her to catch up on her requirements so she can still graduate in four years. In other words, I will do whatever I can to help Sally except advocate for her to get a passing grade she did not earn
Sally should fail because she did not complete the work; she did not learn what the course proposed to teach; she was not educated. If the university allows Sally to pass, we will be failing her in a much more serious way: we will be failing her as an institution that is deeply committed to learning, failing her as mentors, failing her as human beings. If we do not let Sally fail, she will not learn that adults need to take responsibility for their actions, even when the chips are down, even when the world seems like it is coming to an end. She will not learn that sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, even the best of us fail. If we do not allow her to fail, she will not have the chance to learn resilience. She will not learn to ask for help or recognize the importance of communication. If we don’t allow Sally to fail, she will not learn that adult life is hard and often unfair and that success is defined in that critical moment between giving up or staying the course.
I do not enjoy watching students fail any more than I did 15 years ago, but now I see failures as part and parcel of the total experience of a college education. Like so much in life, failure and success are just different ends of the same spectrum. Learning to navigate that spectrum with integrity, grace, humility, and a little grit, is one of the most important skills colleges can teach.
Melissa Nicolas is interim associate dean of academic services at Drew University.