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Essay on whether online education will make professors obsolete

The Obsolescence Question
July 30, 2012

When’s the last time an ice deliveryman visited your home? Have you ever talked to a telephone switchboard operator? Thanks to new technologies, these once-common occupations passed into history many years ago now. Bank tellers and travel agents are not completely obsolete, but substantially fewer people are employed in these lines of work than in the past for similar reasons.

Will new developments in Internet-based communications technology do similar things to college professors? Perhaps people like me will face the same trouble finding employment that newspaper reporters or piano tuners face nowadays. Or perhaps MOOCs will eliminate the need for professors almost entirely, allowing students to flock to courses offered by a smattering of "super-professors" while computers, graduate students and adjuncts do all the grading that once occupied so much of an analog instructor’s time.

I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either. Yet this fact has not prevented the rise of a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap. Some of these pundits seem to welcome that possibility because they expect that the cost of a college education will decrease with fewer professors collecting what they perceive to be hefty salaries, and they think that’s good for society. Some of these people seem to welcome this possibility because they just hate college professors. We are perceived as elitists, and everybody likes to watch elitists get their comeuppance, except the elitists themselves.

While countless people try to predict the future of higher education based on the technologies of the present, less interest exists about the effect of all these predictions on higher education today. While reading the online educational technology press for the sake of my blog, I sometimes feel like that old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who has to tell the guy clearing out the bodies of plague victims that he’s not dead yet.

To my mind, this feeling is no accident. As the saga surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s presidency at the University of Virginia has clearly demonstrated, faculty are capable of mounting fierce resistance to unwanted technological changes under the right circumstances. The e-mails leading up to Sullivan’s initial firing demonstrate that U.Va.'s Board of Visitors was steeped in press clippings that treated the transition to online education as an inevitability. That attitude goes a long way toward explaining the board’s now legendary heavy-handedness. They wanted to ride the crest of a wave that supposedly well-informed people were all telling them is already coming.

For technology companies that stand to profit by disrupting higher education, treating the transition to an online future as a fait accompli serves as a very effective business strategy. By continually reinforcing the idea that traditional higher education is way behind the times, they gather public support for costly online initiatives that might not otherwise go forward.  Equally importantly, this kind of rhetoric infects faculty with a sense of learned helplessness. Why try to fight the inevitable when we have so much else to worry about in our busy lives already?

Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession. Sometimes I think that enough support exists on enough campuses that the kind of teaching I do now will persist well past my retirement because students will still value the personal touch that proximity makes possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside of Frank Donoghue’s higher education classic, The Last Professors. Donoghue’s primary concern in that book was the corporate culture of the modern university. The jargon employed by U.Va. board members suggests how well the maturation of online education complements the destruction of traditions caused by that ideology in other aspects of campus life.

Perhaps my somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward the possibility of my own obsolescence comes from the fact that whether the Internet makes college professors a thing of the past doesn’t depend upon the professoriate. It depends upon students, and to an equal extent it depends upon society at large.

Nobody can dispute that online education has advanced far enough that it is now possible to learn a wide range of subjects at home in your pajamas through your computer. The question is whether this kind of learning will be acceptable to most students in the future, and perhaps more importantly whether it will be acceptable to the people who’ll employ them. I used to think that someone on the other end of a computer screen could never teach history as well as I can in person. I still think that’s true, but as Clayton Christensen has argued, an online education doesn’t have to be superior to the status quo in order to make my current job obsolete. The bad can drive out the good under certain circumstances, such as when the price of the higher-quality product is too expensive for most consumers to afford it.

Whether you’re an enthusiastic booster of online education or an informed skeptic like me, there is no question that faculty need to understand developments in the educational technology industry, if for no other reason than for their own self-preservation. If transformational change is indeed inevitable, faculty should assert their prerogative as teachers in order to make sure that the quality of higher education is not seriously degraded by this metamorphosis. By doing so, maybe they can carve out a place for themselves in a more efficient future. If transformational change is not inevitable, then for heaven’s sake don’t let the vultures who want to profit from picking at the corpse that was once your career destroy it without a fight.

I can tell you from personal experience that following developments in educational technology can be thoroughly exhausting. I’m sure plenty of you who’ve tried it yourselves would prefer to never encounter the word MOOC again in your entire lives. However, living in ignorance is probably the worst thing you could do. No matter how the Internet impacts higher education, we faculty need to play a role in the debate over its strengths and weaknesses for the sake of our students. If we happen to save our own jobs in the process of doing so, then that’s all for the better.

Bio

Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo. He blogs about educational technology, labor issues and American history at More or Less Bunk. His book, Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life: A Brief Introduction will be released in September by M.E. Sharpe.

 

 

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