That college you have your eye on for your teenager? It may be going out of business. Your alma mater, too.
Here’s why: we keep seeing reports that the financial model undergirding much of higher education is weak and getting weaker. The way colleges are financed is out of date with the demands of a much larger student population. Few people outside higher education are aware of this, but college and university leaders are deeply concerned.
As director of the Postsecondary Success Strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I have spent the last year talking with chancellors, provosts, faculty, policy makers, and education technologists. Pretty much all of them recognize that higher education is at a tipping point, and that it will soon look nothing like it does today, except perhaps at a few ivy-covered, well-endowed institutions.
This is not hyperbole.
Bain & Co. looked at hundreds of colleges and universities and found that about one in three is on an unsustainable financial track. “A growing percentage of our colleges and universities are in real financial trouble. And if the current trends continue, we will see a higher education system that will no longer be able to meet the diverse needs of the U.S. student population in 20 years.”
The report found that, at a time when college revenues and cash reserves are down, too many institutions face bigger debt service bills and ever-increasing expenses. Colleges were once able to make ends meet with annual tuition hikes, new fees and by securing more government support. Those days, though, are gone. Too many students now must borrow heavily just to keep pace with tuition increases, and government coffers are bare.
Last summer Inside Higher Ed and Gallup surveyed campus chief financial officers on their thoughts on the sustainability of their higher education institutions. Only 27 percent of them expressed strong confidence in their institution's financial model over the next five years. When asked to consider a 10-year window, the number expressing strong confidence in the financial health of their institutions dropped to 13 percent.
Improvement is needed on the academic side, as well. Data shows that our higher education system currently serves only about a third of students well, any most of those come from generally well-off families. Institutions of all types–two-year, four-year, public, private and online–need to adapt to the realities of today’s students even as they grapple with shrinking resources and increasing demand.
Only one student in four graduates from high school ready to succeed in a postsecondary program. Too many of the rest end up stuck in remedial programs that drain their resources and don’t prepare them to successfully complete postsecondary coursework.
Many of these students are from low-income families, or they are older, juggling life, jobs, and family as they pursue their educations. They are often first-generation college-goers who lack the support and guidance crucial to navigating the thicket that is higher education. As a result, too many students end up leaving college with a lot of debt but no degree.
We used to call these students “nontraditional.” Now they are the “new majority.” And their struggles were highlighted recently in data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that showed U.S. adults have below average literacy, math and problem solving skills when compared to their peers in the world’s richest countries. We have to make the system better for these students — but how?
Technology is often looked at as an answer. Yet, it has to be more than just bolting new technology on an antiquated platform. Technology-driven innovation has the potential to help colleges and universities address some of these challenges while helping faculty do their jobs by helping them offer students more personalized instruction and academic support. Done thoughtfully and well, technology can help faculty provide a more personalized learning experience for their students and ease some of the financial pressure on colleges and universities.
Today’s students need highly personalized coaching, mentoring, and other supports tailored to their individual needs and goals. Technology holds huge promise for making this kind of personalization possible by enabling colleges to effectively target the most costly and most important aspect of any education – the interactions with instructors and advisors.
Too often, we are debating the wrong things about technology and higher education. For example, we can’t just compare online or in-person classes. We need new business models that include technology and allow colleges and universities to put scarce dollars where they matter most. For today’s student, what can make a big, positive difference is access to an education tailored to their needs, their learning styles, and their goals, with appropriate coaching and advising.
Look at the State University of New York, which plans to add 100,000 new students over the next three years through its Open SUNY initiative. It will make online classes at each of its 64 campuses available to all of the system’s 468,000 students. Personalization will be an important part of the initiative, combining on-site and online academic support. Arizona State University, for its part, combines face-to-face learning, hybrid classes, and online instruction to increase enrollments, even as it faces severe physical space limits.
The cause is urgent. For higher education to fulfill its historic role as an engine of social mobility and economic growth, we must continue to seek big technology breakthroughs. This means thinking creatively about how to serve students as individuals, while also ensuring that many more students get the learning opportunities they deserve.
This might sound paradoxical, but investments in education technology will be increasingly crucial to humanizing and improving the student experience. And it might just keep your alma mater – or your child’s future alma mater – in business, and more purposeful and student-centered than ever.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.
Those five simple words should stand at the center of all conversations about higher education; participants in such conversations should recite them on a regular basis. Instead, I hear the drumbeat language of “disruption” — new models of higher education will do to “legacy” colleges and universities what the steamboat did to the sailing vessel, or more recently, what Amazon did to Borders. The disruption gurus see a new business model on the horizon, approaching fast and preparing to vanquish all postsecondary institutions that do not embrace a particular kind of innovation. Those institutions will decline because they cannot compete.
The disruptive steamroller now bearing down on higher education is a product strategy known as “unbundling.” Just as iTunes has driven the album out of the market by enabling consumers to purchase their music one song at a time, students are increasingly able to purchase their degrees, one or two courses at a time, from different providers. “Like steam,” proclaims one Harvard Business School professor together with the executive director of an “Institute for Disruptive Innovation,” “online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”
The argument goes something like this. Skyrocketing tuitions have put college out of the reach of millions of Americans (not to mention millions more around the world with access to a computer but not a campus). In a market economy, when a product becomes too expensive for consumers, innovators who can satisfy demand more efficiently will drive existing businesses to the margins — in this case, to the kind of luxury market that prefers a CD to an MP3. Here, the avatars of disruption don’t completely agree: some, like the keynote speaker at the recent Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference, readily admit that “traditional” institutions generally provide a superior education, given the virtues of face-to-face interaction and the multidimensionality of student life; others insist that consumers of such educational Cadillacs are mere chumps, spending thousands of dollars on prestige, along with a “student life” consisting mostly of parties that would be more cheaply and safely held at home.
Given these excessive costs — generally attributed to inefficiency, salaries paid to professors more interested in research than in teaching, and a broken business model that federal financial aid subsidies keep insulated from market forces — consumers will increasingly choose cheaper degrees that do a better job of preparing them for the workplace. These new degrees use technology more efficiently, reward competence over time in a classroom, and liberate students to take courses where they are available, rather than suffer from the corporeal implications of how many bodies can fit into a single classroom, or how often a given course appears on the schedule. Statistics 101 is full at your university? No big deal; just take the MOOC and get credit in the same way your university gave credit for that Advanced Placement course you took in high school.
Liberated from such luxuries as student counseling (academic and otherwise), full-time faculty, sports, dormitories (fancy and otherwise), meadows and plazas, orchestras, offices of community relations that actually provide services rather than public relations, subsidized clinics, and various other luxuries unnecessary to a student’s first job (as opposed to a career), the new-model colleges can indeed do it cheaper. And this is not a bad thing: millions of people across the planet hunger for knowledge and ought to have the access that online education can provide.
It is a grim reality of many large (mostly public) universities that students unable to get a spot in required courses cannot graduate in four, even five years.
The history major who can’t take the entry-level requirement until junior year has a problem that “unbundling” can solve, whether through a MOOC or some other online venue. I would love to see the American Historical Association participate in any innovation able to address this problem. I also appreciate how a degree earned through a set of courses taken at various places, online and otherwise, makes good sense to people unable or unwilling to pay for a “traditional” college education. Those of us who consider humanities and social science essential to career preparation should dedicate ourselves to ensuring that such degrees include high-quality history education, provided by professionals who are properly compensated for their time and expertise. We should be similarly committed to widening access to higher education of all kinds, and to the kinds of lifelong learning that can be facilitated by distance educational resources.
But education is not music. I don’t care whether everyone in my city is willing to sacrifice sound quality, and the artistry involved in constructing the content of a CD, for the convenience and cost of an MP3. Nor do I care if “legacy” airlines are pushed aside by the disruptive innovations of creative entrepreneurs. The big corporations, analogous to 19th-century shipping magnates, can fall victim to “disruption” and we will have traded very little for new efficiencies. The same cannot be said for education, which is not merely a consumer purchase but a public good. Part of the reason for a seemingly failing financial model in public postsecondary education is found not on the cost side, but rather in a decline in public funding. At non-flagship public universities and community colleges, the cost per student (as opposed to what students actually pay) is generally not increasing. Students cannot get into courses in part because public colleges and universities do not have adequate public funds. It is incumbent on us to make a better argument for such funding, but we should not assume that the market can do the job better. More efficiently, maybe. But not better.
Moreover, we will all lose if we allow markets to determine the institutional framework of higher education. The self-described disruptors claim to be doing what scholars do: competing in a marketplace of ideas, with the same imperative to think outside the box, explore new models, and reward creativity. But, in my field, history, we know that the best new scholarship builds upon the old, rather than casting it to the scrap heap. We learn from our predecessors; they spare us the inefficiency of having to reinvent the wheel. We are not out to destroy them in the way of the business world to which the disruptors look for models of change.
Let us make room, then, for the innovations that broaden access, while participating in the conversations that will shape and deploy those innovations. Markets ought not be considered the arbiters of quality education. To allocate public resources based on how much an education costs, and whether it can provide minimal competencies, is a strategy to impoverish public culture. Education is not just a tool for individual advancement; it is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship. The system works better for all of us if more people can recognize a logical fallacy, read a data table, understand the text and context of the Constitution, and decipher debates surrounding the causes of the Great Depression. An unbundled degree offers a better education compared to no degree at all (something to be taken seriously), but it is a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curriculums, rather than courses.
We need to determine what, precisely, is being disrupted by new business models, ensuring that as we transform higher education with digital tools, we also conserve essential elements of the best system of higher education in the world, measured by the number of people from around the globe who either flock to our institutions or try to replicate them back home (often with strong public backing), having grasped the fact that education, after all, is a public good.
Many of the elements we treasure in a “traditional” education are somewhat intangible, or difficult to explain without sounding either elitist or archaic, but they are benefits nonetheless, and public funds should subsidize the financial aid necessary to keep them accessible to those determined to reap their benefits but unable to afford their cost. I encourage our colleagues to figure out how to participate in and adapt new forms of instruction. But I also challenge the entrepreneurs who profit from those new forms to join American traditions of philanthropic citizenship and support the infrastructure of “bricks and mortar” education for those who desire it — not only those who can afford it.
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.
Signals has had a rough few months. Blog posts,articles, and pointed posts on social media have recently taken both the creators and promoters of the tool to task for inflated retention claims and for falling into common statistical traps in making those claims. Some of the wounds are self-inflicted — not responding is rarely received well. Others, however, are misunderstandings of the founding goals and the exciting next phases of related work.
Signals is a technology application originally created by a team at Purdue University that uses a basic rules-based set of predictions and triggers — based on years of educational research and insight from the university's faculty — and combines them with real-time activity of students in a given course. It then uses a “traffic light” interface with student that sends them a familiar kind of message:
Green light: you’re doing well and on the right track.
Yellow light: you’re a little off-track, you might want to think about x,y, or z or talk with someone.
Red light: you’re in trouble. You probably need to reach out to someone for help.
These same data are also shared with faculty and administrators so they can reach out to those who need specific support in overcoming an academic challenge or just extra encouragement. Signals is now part of the services offered by Ellucian, but just about all the major players in education technology offer some version of "early warning" applications. In our insight and analytics work, a number of colleges and universities are piloting related apps; however, the promise and problems of Signals are an important predicate as we move forward with that work.
The Signals app project began with a clear and compelling goal: to allow students, faculty, and advisers access to data that might help them navigate the learning journey. For too long, the key data work in education has been focused on reporting, accreditation, or research that leads to long reports that few people see and are all too often used to make excuses, brag, blame, or shame. More problematic, most of these uses happen after courses are over or worse, after students have already dropped out.
The Signals team was trying to turn that on its head by gathering some useful feedback data we know from research may help students navigate a given course, and to give more information to faculty and administrators dedicated to helping them in the process. The course-level outcomes were strong. More students earned As, fewer got Fs, and the qualitative comments made it clear that many students appreciated the feedback. A welcome “wake-up call,” many called it.
John Campbell, then the associate vice president of information technology at Purdue, was committed to this vision. In numerous presentations he argued that “Signals was an attempt to take what decades of educational research was saying was important — tighter feedback loops — and create a clean, simple way for students, faculty, and advisers to get feedback that would be useful.”
Signals was a vital, high-profile first step in the process of turning the power of educational data work toward getting clean, clear, and useable information to the front lines. It was a pioneer in this work and should be recognized as such. The trouble is the conflation of this work with large-scale retention and student success efforts. Claiming a 21 percent long-term retention lift, as some at Purdue have, is a significant stretch at best. However, Signals has shown itself to be a useful tool to help students navigate specific courses, and for faculty and staff striving to supporting them. And while that will likely be useful in long-term retention, there is still much work to be done to both bring Signals to the next level of utility in courses and to test its impact on larger student success initiatives.
First, as Campbell, now CIO at West Virginia University notes, Signals has to truly leverage analytics. In our recent conversation he posited, “The only way to bring apps like Signals to their full potential, to bring them to scale, to make them sustainable is through analytics.” Front-line tools like Signals have to be powered by analyses that bring better and more personalized insight into individual students based on large-scale, consistently updated, student-level predictive models of pathways through a given institution. Put simply, basing the triggers and tools of these front-line systems on blunt, best-practice rules is not personalized, but generalized. It’s probably useful, but not optimal for that individual student. There needs to be a “next generation” of Signals, as Campbell notes, one that is more sophisticated and personalized.
For example, with a better understanding of the entire student pathway derived from analytics anchored on individual-level course completion, retention, and graduation predictions, a student who was highly likely to struggle in a given course from day one — e.g., a student having consistent difficulty with writing-intensive courses who is trying to take three simultaneously — might be advised away from a combination of courses that could be toxic for him or her. By better balancing the course selection, the problem — which would not necessarily be the challenge of a given course — could be solved before it begins. In addition, an institution may find that for a cluster of students standard “triggers” for intervention are meaningless. We’ve seen institutions that are serving military officers who have stellar completion and grade patterns over multiple semesters; however, because of the challenges of their day jobs, regular attendance patterns are not the norm. A generalized predictive model that pings instructors, advisers, or automated systems to intervene with these students may be simply annoying a highly capable student and/or wasting the time of faculty and advisers who are pushed to intervene.
Second, these tools have to be studied and tuned to better understand and maximize their positive impact on diverse student populations. With large-scale predictive flow models of student progression and propensity-score matching, for example, we can better understand how these tools contribute to long-term student success. Moreover, we can do tighter testing on the impact of user-interface design.
Indeed, we have a lot to learn about how we bring the right data to the right people – students, faculty, and advisers — in the right way. A red traffic light flashing in the face of a first-generation student that says, “You are likely to fail” might be a disaster. It might just reaffirm what he or she feared all along (e.g., “I don’t belong here”) and lead to dropping out. Is there a better way to display the data that would be motivating to that student?
The chief data scientist at our company, David Kil, comes from the world of health care, where they have learned the lessons of the impact of lifespan analysis and rapidly testing interventions. He points out the importance of knowing both when to intervene and how to intervene. Moreover, they learned that sometimes data is best brought right to the patient in an app or even an SMS message, other times the message is better sent through nurses or peer coaches, other times a conversation with a physician is the game changer. Regardless, testing the intervention for interface and impact on unique patient types, and its impact on long-term health, is a must.
The parallel in education is clear: Signals was an important first step to break the data wall and bring more focus to the front lines. However, as Campbell notes, if we want these kinds of tools to become more useful, we need to design them with triggers and tools grounded in truly predictive models and create a large-scale community of practice to test their impact and utility with students, faculty, and advisers – and their long-term contribution to retention and graduation. Moreover, as Mike Caulfield notes, technology-assisted interventions need to be put in the larger context of other interventions and strategies, many of which are deeply personal and/or driven by face-to-face work in instruction, advising, and coaching. Indeed, front-line apps at their best might make the human moments in education more frequent, informed, and meaningful. Because, let’s be clear about it, students don’t get choked up about apps that changed their lives at graduation.
Mark Milliron is Civitas Learning's chief learning officer and co-founder.
This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.
Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.
All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.
The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”
Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.
On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.
By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.
We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.
None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.
None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.
While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.
At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....
The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.
This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.
The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.
An article in these pages last week, "We Are Not Luddites," by Brooks Kohler, argues that being skeptical of online learning does not make one a Luddite.
Very well, then. I think most academics would agree. If his article had gone on to critique the tendency of tech folks to alienate skeptics of online learning by labeling them backward or hopelessly outdated, I would have been on board.
But Kohler takes a curious turn when he writes that liberal arts instructors who welcome online learning are in a state of “technological hypnosis.” Students, according to Kohler, are in a “fixative trance.” Apparently digital technology is a dangling medallion swinging back and forth, and we are all getting very, very sleepy.
Kohler goes on to describe a “pathetically sad” scene in which “a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle (sic) screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching.” Online learning to Kohler is inherently dystopian, akin to Orwell’s 1984, while the face-to-face classroom is, in contrast, natural and human.
This conversation calls to mind Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Socrates laments the technology of writing because he fears it will diminish memory skills if Athenian citizens no longer have to memorize and practice oral discourse.
Worse yet, writing is inferior to speech, according to Socrates, because we can’t argue with a piece of paper like a living person; writing only has the appearance of wisdom, not wisdom itself.
Frankly, I’m not interested in reinforcing such a strict for/against dichotomy when discussing online learning and new digital technologies. I think such binary thinking is part of the problem.
I teach face-to-face, online, and blended sections of composition at a small rural state university and I see strengths and limitations in all three approaches. My online classes look nothing like Kohler’s panoptic nightmare. Or, at least, I hope they do not -- now that I think of it, perhaps students calling me Big Brother isn’t a term of endearment after all.
Kohler does not take kindly to being called a Luddite, yet he suggests teachers and students working hard to make online learning rigorous, academic and accessible are hypnotized dupes attracted to shiny surfaces and entranced by blinking lights. Worse yet, he charges that online learning encourages contingent academic labor and the demise of tenure-track positions when in fact this erosion has been a decades-long process with roots extending long before online learning.
Notice I’ve been using the term “online learning” and not “MOOCs,” the latter against which I harbor a much deeper skepticism, but that’s a story for another time. I highlight this distinction because a sleight of hand occurs when Kohler begins his article by discussing MOOCs only to substitute that digital phenomenon with a more generalized “online learning” later in the same paragraph.
I’m not just splitting hairs. MOOCs and online learning are too often conflated. They are, of course, not the same thing. Suggesting otherwise is merely shoving stuffing into a straw man. The problems of MOOCs do not automatically extend to online learning in general.
A similar game of three-card monte is performed when Kohler uses a generalized “technology” when he really means new digital technologies. This slippage leads to historical and theoretical quandaries.
For example, when Kohler chortles “as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior” he fails to recognize that pen and paper are technologies, and that writing itself is a technology, as Walter Ong famously argued. Conflating new digital technologies that facilitate online learning with technology in general results in a fixed, narrow, and uncomplicated definition of technology.
Again, this isn’t academic hair-splitting. Such a distinction is helpful because it leads our dialogue away from dystopic visions and forces us to confront the fact that even analog technology like Kohler’s “pen and pad” shape how and what we learn.
Because teachers believe that online learning can be a worthwhile experience does not mean that we are hypnotized, nor does it mean that we are chasing fads and abandoning “literature and writing” and a “fine attention to detail,” as Kohler claims.
Instead of charging one another as either entranced by new technologies or a Luddite, we should be cultivating dialogue, criticism and best practices to make online education better.
We should also pay more attention to issues of race, class and access when it comes to online learning. And we should be building space and time into our online courses for students to reflect on their own skepticism and concerns with digital learning. Including students in this dialogue is essential.
I too am skeptical of online learning. However, this skepticism does not lead me away from online teaching, but toward it. I want to make it better. I believe it’s our duty to make it better. Drawing broad caricatures of online teachers and students only reinforces the importance of not devolving into a strict for/against dichotomy in our dialogue.
John F. Raucci Jr. is an assistant professor of English at Frostburg State University.