Instructional technology / distance education

Essay on whether online education will make professors obsolete

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.

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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Survey provides insight into who enrolls in fully online programs and why

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Survey shows that totally online programs are attracting primarily women, white people and fully employed workers with good salaries -- many of whom want degrees in business.

Distance education advocates worry about proposed changes to Pell Grant

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A Senate attempt to change distance education students' eligibility for Pell Grants for living expenses sprung from concern about financial aid fraud, but some say the changes would go too far.

Northern Arizona U. partners with Pearson on competency-based degree programs

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Another public institution embraces competency-based degree programs, this time with the help of a business.

Professors shouldn't be afraid of online learning (essay)

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).

Survey: iPad adoption sluggish but e-textbooks booming

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Apple iPads are gradually catching up to their hype on four-year campuses; e-textbooks make inroads as well.

At birthday celebration, land-grant colleges get advice about their future

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At celebration of land-grant universities, Bill Gates and others tell campus leaders they must use financial aid and new technology to maintain the Morrill Act's emphasis on student access and agricultural education.

Disruption is an excuse for politically motivated changes (essay)

Recent events at the University of Virginia following the decision of the institution's governing board to remove its president after only two years in office have brought to light some questionable claims that have been animating educational reformers lately.

In a statement justifying the Board of Visitors’ decision, the Board’s rector, Helen Dragas, asserted that U.Va.’s president, Terry Sullivan, was unwilling to make the kinds of changes necessary at a time when universities like Virginia are facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas believes, “is simply moving too fast.”

Dragas’s comments echo those of many reformers who believe that new technologies are producing “disruptive innovation,” forcing universities, which are supposedly conservative by nature and controlled by faculty who are invested in outmoded ways of doing things, to transform themselves to meet the needs of the 21st century.

The claim behind this is, quite simply, that new technologies have alone made it possible to transcend the “traditional” campus model. Whether through new learning technology on campus or through distant online education, technology will cut costs, improve access, and completely reframe the foundation of the American academy: tenure, shared governance, and the centrality of brick-and-mortar classrooms and flesh-and-blood faculty.

The problem with this refrain is that it ignores the importance of ideas and politics. As Mark Blyth of Johns Hopkins has written, disruptive innovation is not just a technological act, but one in which new contexts enable people with pre-existing ideas for reform to push their pre-existing agenda. In short, ideas can be used to determine what gets defined as a crisis and what gets defined as the appropriate solution.

In this case, the constant iteration of “disruptive innovation” provides an aura of inevitability to issues that are to be worked out on the ground through politics, on the one hand, and through decisions by specific colleges and universities, on the other hand. There is nothing inevitable about how new technology is used, what its goals are, and who will control it: these are all matters that some one -- or some group -- will decide.

The refrain of disruption is misleading. It suggests that the “traditional” college is on its last legs, when this is far from being the case. In fact, there is nothing inherently disruptive about new technologies. At their best, as the New York Times's David Brooks rightly notes, new technologies can improve colleges by allowing teachers to be more effective within classrooms.

At their worst, new technologies will be used to replace the human dimension of education with machines. But those are choices that we, as citizens, policy makers, and members of the academy are free to make. Change may be inevitable, but the direction and meaning of change are not.

For decades critics of higher education have sought to limit the centrality of the liberal arts -- and the humanities in particular -- in the American college curriculum. For decades, critics of higher education have sought to eliminate tenure and reduce shared governance to make universities more accountable to managers. For decades, critics have sought to rely on market-based ideas both to fund universities and to determine which programs are worth funding. None of these criticisms relied on new technologies. They were present in the 1970s and 1980s.

What we are really seeing is not necessarily a moment of disruptive change.

Rather, those who are already hostile to the academy are invoking the idea of disruption to convince the rest of us that the changes they desire are inevitable.

The new technologies are an excuse; the reality is that many of the changes being imposed on universities across America -- and exposed in the debates at the University of Virginia -- are not about technology and disruptive innovation but about those who have a particular vision of American higher education and want to see it happen.

In short, it’s about politics and values, and there’s nothing inevitable about those.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2004.


U.Va.'s interim president addresses challenges for the first time

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UVa's interim president addresses criticisms about board, president's resignation, and the university's efforts in online education in effort to move campus forward. Faculty leaders still want ousted president reinstated.


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