My Technological Dream of Carpe Diem

A problematic storyline.

November 2, 2014

In one of the most memorable movie scenes ever about teaching, Robin Williams, as the high school English teacher John Keating, stands up on his desk and asks the stunned class “Why do I stand up here?” When a student replies “To feel taller!” Williams responds, “No! Thank you for playing Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

Yes indeed. That is the transformative power of education, and Keating’s dramatic style of teaching and advice of “seize the day” has resonated with two generations of students and teachers about what it means to be an instructor and push students beyond what they thought they were capable of thinking and being.

If only it were so.

It is thus with frustration that I read through the just-released Inside Higher Ed survey of faculty attitudes on technology. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a useful report, with important findings about how instructors across higher education think about online education. But it also makes vivid (and perpetuates) an old and deeply problematic storyline that technology is somehow destroying the future of education.

(I want to note that while I am going to take the findings at face value, I have serious reservations about the survey’s methodology and data analysis. There appears to be some major self-selection biases given, for example, the preponderance of faculty who have experience in teaching online courses, who are tenured and tenure-track, and who seemingly teach at a liberal arts institution; to take just the latter point, liberal arts institutions make up just three percent of all postsecondary institutions, yet sixty-two percent of respondents stated that they teach at such an institution. Moreover, the lack of disaggregation across many of these demographic variables and lack of any statistical analysis makes me wonder if the findings actually hide more than they reveal. But I quibble…)

The frustrating aspect of the findings is that they were so predictable: most faculty feel that online classes can’t be as good as face-to-face, whether it’s in helping “at risk” or “exceptional” students, answering student questions, or grading student work. Only four percent of all faculty, for example, thought that online classes were better than face-to-face at fostering quality interaction with students or helping to deliver the necessary academic content.

Such bravado is all nice and good if these faculty are truly inciting roomfuls of earnest youth on a daily basis. But the reality is far different. What wormhole, I want to ask, are these faculty stuck in? First, there are plenty of research studies by now that document the comparability of online to face-to-face courses. Second, the vast majority of face-to-face courses are a far cry from that idyllic seminar room, with lecture being the predominant instructional method across most colleges and universities. Third, the instructors standing in front of the lecture hall are usually contingent faculty, including adjuncts, graduate students, and non-tenure track faculty who have limited incentives or support in becoming the next Mr. Keating. Fourth, these most important front-line courses, which are taken by the vast majority of our students, overemphasize facts, minimize higher order thinking, and underemphasize exactly the kinds of student engagement necessary for student success. And, finally, the plurality of students being taught, the “new majority,” are older, part-time student who have different needs and goals for their educational experience. The truth is that there are some profoundly exciting developments in digital learning technologies across higher education that will improve interaction and support better delivery of academic content.

This is not what comes across in the survey findings. What comes across is a sentimentalism of a glorious education past that is on the verge of being corrupted. Don’t let anyone, the survey findings shout out at us, but the faculty at each and every institution create their very own online programs. Make sure that the same faculty teach the same in-person and the online class. Make sure that meaningful interaction between students and faculty is at the heart of the online experience.

This is all makes me feel like I’m back in 1996, web 1.0 style, as I call my trustworthy travel agent to ask about this new thing called Travelocity and he tells me not to bother with it, that he knows how to get me that best price. I trusted him for a while, but well, we all know how that story ended. It ended when the internet showed us that you could routinize highly complex yet standardized procedures by leveraging what George Siemens termed the four Vs: velocity, volume, variety, and variability. Put otherwise, there is no recognition or understanding of the power of online education and digital learning technologies, from the modularization of the curriculum to adaptive learning platforms to intelligent tutoring systems. The survey questions and findings give us no hint that the technological future may actually force us to confront this broken system in order to transform it.

In the end, I get it. I really do. This is not the storyline of how online education has developed in the last twenty years or how the hype cycle of MOOCs has moved in just the last year from the peak of expectations to the trough of disillusionment. We have no alternative storyline that allows us to stand up on our desks to think differently about how technology may enable, rather than destroy, higher education.

This is ultimately what is sad. For as I have argued, digital learning technologies offer immense opportunities for a profound transformation in how we teach and learn, so long as we begin to realize their limits and possibilities. We are not machines, and, as such, it is incumbent on us to figure out how to use these digital tools to focus on the power of those classroom moments, to dream of future Mr. Keatings rather than of past travel agents.

That is my technological dream.

Dan Butin, PhD, is an Associate Professor and founding Dean of the School of Education at Merrimack College and the executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.

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