The atmosphere at the university workshop on online learning was becoming a little edgy, with questions in the air like “What does flipping a classroom really mean?” And, more dauntingly, “Do MOOCs threaten our liberal arts model of education?” A high point occurred when one participant, addressing a panel of faculty and administrators, asked, “What is our solution to these changes?” with the not-so-gentle observation, “Because if we don’t have one, we are road kill.”
The response from the panel was slow in coming -- no big surprise. Fact is, there is no easy answer. That’s because the question of how not to become road kill presumes that we understand why we should not become road kill. It is only through a clear, here-and-now answer to the second question that we are likely to devise a credible response to the first.
So here is a here-and-now context for why. Truly harrowing challenges are upon us: climate change, with its companions, the sixth mass extinction, and ecological overreach, are all bearing down on us potential road-pizzas like a convoy of 18-wheelers.
By the time this year’s graduates are ready to send their children to college, the planet’s CO2 concentration will have reached 450 parts per million, summertime Arctic sea ice will be a thing of memory, and humanity will have committed a dozen future human generations to a minimum 2°C temperature rise. These are the terrifying facts of our current reality, and without proper leadership, our likely fate.
To meet these challenges, people -- our future leaders -- need the best possible technological expertise. More than that, they need to be able to think across multiple time horizons. If only liberal arts colleges provided that kind of relevance.
Well, maybe we do.
My daughter just got home from her first year at college — a liberal arts college. Had she experienced anything, I asked, that spoke to dangers that are so slow that they span generations, but are no less deadly for being slow? She looked at me as if to say, do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? Because that was the whole point of her paper about Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
This was her experience: She had cried when Aeneas killed Turnus. But more than that, she was outraged. For the sake of a moment of vengeful glory, Aeneas had lost his way from the past to the future.
And that related to my question … how?
Try a little empathy, she suggested.
I eventually got it. This, the early part of the 21st century, is our moment. Our willingness to make painful sacrifices for the latter part of the century depends on our ability to empathize with people we have never met — our future grandchildren. Experience in empathizing across a broad expanse of time is one kind of relevance liberal arts institutions have a lot of experience providing.
A second kind of relevance to those harrowing challenges is directly related to the Internet itself. Few would contest that the Internet is an indispensable asset in describing the complex environmental and societal processes that collectively make up what is referred to as climate change. Put another way, no college graduate today should be ignorant of the potential for Internet-based computational power and knowledge to model and predict future climate.
This potential is, of course, much more general. Broadly speaking, the Internet and liberal arts share something very important. They are both about the creation and use of knowledge through collaborative work. How were Unix, Git, and LaTex created? All were the result of a very liberal-artsy vision for online collaboration.
Can liberal arts colleges provide that kind of relevance, too?
As educators, preparing future leaders to exploit the resources of the internet will require that we move into that space ourselves. We have to learn to recognize the opportunities for new paradigms for learning that the internet has created. One major shift already under way is a reorientation toward student-centered classrooms.
Flipping a class -- so that online lectures are viewed at home and class time is spent in active discussion -- is an example. Flipping isn’t new, but digital technology makes flipping easy, and that is new. It works because it lets humans and computers each do what they do best.
Beyond that are new digital tools that we are just figuring out how to use. Examples are discipline-specific software products like Spartan. Spartan produces molecular electronic structures, in three dimensions, on the computer screen. It lets students see and manipulate these structures by solving the most basic equations known to science. Maybe I’m not making that sound as cool as it is, so let me try again. If you think chemistry is an impossibly difficult, jargon-ridden, mysterious science, you are right. Spartan changes that by making every sit-down experience with it a unique, original investigation into the nature of chemical behavior. This is digital-based pedagogy with methodological muscle, formerly a graduate school tool, now accessible to freshmen. You just have to find a way to make it happen in your classroom.
It is through the combination of these two kinds of relevance -- Aeneas and Unix -- that students at undergraduate institutions, our future leaders, get wired for sound, classical judgment informed by the tools of modern life. And if individual liberal arts colleges can deliver these skills better than most, leveraging the advantages of small classes and inspired mentoring, then we are an important part of the response to that convoy rumbling our way.
These kinds of tools are not online grading, and not MOOCs either. They represent a new kind of information literacy. True, we are not there yet; it will take effort, and a bit of daring, to figure out how to teach tools like these. But as we grow into them, we will discover previously unimagined new paradigms for learning.
Rather exciting, actually, considering the stakes. And not at all like road kill.
Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.
Mark: President Eliot! I didn’t realize you’d be attending this alumni event. You know, given that you’ve been dead for almost a century.
Charles: Yes, it’s the strangest thing. Last I remember, I was skating on Fresh Pond….
M: Cryogenics are quite wonderful. Didn’t do much for Ted Williams, though.
M: Not important. I’ve read a lot about you. Harvard’s president for 40 years. You really were (air quotes) “Charles in Charge!”
M: Well, you’d never last that long today, especially spouting controversial views on education and society like you did. Didn’t work out so well for the last guy here.
C: Our positions demanded that we take leadership of the intellectual and moral issues of our day.
M: Now you’re just expected to raise money.
C: We did that as well.
M: Oh, it’s a different ballgame these days, a lot more complex. Higher expectations and greater accountability. But more perks and better pay, too. Some university presidents make over a million bucks a year. Can you believe it?
C: That’s preposterous.
M: You should ask President Faust about what today’s presidency entails.
C: Yes, I’ve been meaning to speak with him.
M: Her. President Faust is a woman.
C: (air quotes) “Drew” is a woman?
M: Oh, yeah. Harvard’s first female president.
C: A woman president. Astounding.
M: Not really. Half the Ivy League has had female presidents.
C: Half the what? What’s an Ivy League?
M: It’s an intercollegiate athletic conference with Harvard and its peers.
C: Harvard has no peers.
C: And that’s an idiotic name, Ivy League. Who coined it?
M: A sportswriter, I believe.
C: Figures. I detest collegiate sport, especially football. Barbaric. And the hooligans who play it. What a scourge on the academy. Have they done away with it yet?
M: Not exactly.
C: To me, exercising the intellect is far more important. I started the elective system, you know.
M: Yes, I know. And now we’ve taken that concept, a pragmatic extension of the curriculum, to a new level. Thanks to MOOCs, colleges are bringing courses to the masses, and often at no cost to the student.
C: Free courses? That’s truly preposterous. And who are these mooks you speak of?
M: MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.
C: Another idiotic name. Why not Free University Course Content? Oh… never mind. And I won’t bother to ask you what online means.
M: Just as well.
C: Surely no reputable institutions are in this business.
M: Princeton, Penn, MIT, Stanford…
C: That upstart out West?
M: That’s the one. And Harvard.
C: Heresy. Harvard cannot allow just anyone to feed from its trough. We must maintain impeccable academic standards and grant entry to only the brightest minds. Consider the possible damage to our…
M: That ship has sailed. These days anyone can say they’re studying at Harvard, even though for now they won’t be getting degrees. Or even course credits. Again, for now.
C: (gulping martini…)
M: Of course, employers know the difference. Saying “I attended Harvard” doesn’t always mean the same thing.
C: It did in my day.
M: A lot has changed, Mr. President. You need to catch up on the last 90 or so years. Higher education is a different world. It’s more democratic and inclusive, but at the same time it’s even more selective than in your day. You’ll be pleased to know that Harvard routinely places first or second in U.S. News, a magazine that purports to rank colleges based on quality.
M: It doesn’t mean much to those ranked near the top, but the wannabes make a big deal out of it.
C: You’ve lost me.
M: Places like Harvard don’t worry about attracting the best and brightest.
C: Except that these MOOCs will attract all form of cretins who wish to suckle from Harvard’s teat in a shameless attempt to profit from our good name.
M: I…um…wouldn’t exactly put it that way.
C: So you approve of these MOOCs, do you?
M: Let’s just say I’m in favor of expanding educational opportunity, and that I doubt the reputation of places like Harvard will suffer as a result. At least not yet. If elite institutions start making relatively cheap degrees available to anyone with a computer, I might change my mind.
C: Computer, MOOCs, online, women presidents. It is all very perplexing. I suppose you will next tell me that we no longer require literacy in Greek and Latin for college entrance.
M: Let’s get another drink, Mr. President. This might take a while.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
Over the past five or six years, as I walked the halls or stepped into the faculty mailroom, copy room, and faculty/staff lounge at the community college where I teach, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of faculty. And I don’t mean part-time faculty, who -- despite making up nearly 70 percent of all community college faculty -- have always been nearly invisible on campus.
I mean full-time faculty. Simply stated, they’re just not around as much anymore.
What’s changed? The growing number of full-time faculty teaching courses offered entirely online.
At my college, several faculty teach entirely online and, other than professional development days, are rarely on campus. More typical is the full-time faculty member who now teaches one, two or three courses of his or her five-course teaching load online. (I myself don’t teach online, for reasons I’ll explain later.) While not completely absent from campus, these faculty aren’t nearly as present as they were when I began teaching 28 years ago.
The connection between teaching online and being off-campus hit home when I asked a friend who teaches full time and entirely online at a community college in Illinois about a department colleague. He replied he hadn’t seen his colleague in a year and thought perhaps he was on medical leave. It turned out that the colleague wasn’t on medical leave, but rather was teaching entirely online. The two never saw each other and were now more like independent contractors than department colleagues.
Whether community college faculty is teaching online effectively and students are learning remains open to debate. In its “Research Overview: What We Know About Online Course Outcomes,” the Community College Research Center reports that ”online course taking was... negatively associated with course persistence and completion”; and that “lower performing students” — the very type of students enrolling in community colleges — fared worse in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Faculty who teach online at my college report similar findings.
But it’s not higher attrition rates that worry me about teaching online. What worries me, and what’s not open to debate, is the dwindling presence of faculty on campus, which is particularly troubling for community college students, who now have even fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and students inside and outside the classroom.
Why does faculty presence on campus matter?
Community colleges are typically commuter schools. Students arrive on campus, attend classes (often scheduled two days a week), and leave. Yet research on community college students finds that student engagement with faculty and fellow students inside and outside the classroom is crucial to student retention and academic success. The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that “[d]ata consistently show that students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else” (my emphasis).
According to Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “[r]esearch shows that the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.” The Pearson Foundation’s 2010 Community College Survey found that “[t]wo-thirds of students believe that in order to succeed in community college, it is extremely or very important to have access to academic advisors and to establish relationships with professors.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that community colleges that rely heavily on part-time faculty have higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates — part-time faculty have (even) fewer opportunities to engage with students. In short, student engagement with other students and faculty on a community college campus promotes retention and academic success.
One of my students described the importance of classroom-based interaction in a course evaluation. “My mindset was that it was just going to be another English class, and I was not going to try my hardest or get much out of it. I was taking it as a class that I needed to get out of the way for my program of interest. As time went on I realized how into teaching you were and that the people in the classroom really wanted to learn and to get something out of the class. I then decided that maybe I should apply myself and that was the best choice I made the whole semester.”
It’s highly unlikely this student would have had a similar realization in an online course that offered no face-to-face interaction.
When I reflect on my undergraduate education, face-to-face interaction with faculty had profound effects. I can’t imagine James Woodress, my American literature professor, having such a powerful and positive influence on my life, if, as a student at the University of California at Davis, I hadn’t taken his English courses in a classroom, and if I hadn’t gotten to know him inside and outside the classroom. I have watched the poet Gary Snyder on YouTube, and as good and as interesting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom with him.
Community college students often state they take courses online for the sake of convenience and/or because of a harried life -- two reasons accepted without debate -- in order to get done with school as quickly as possible. The course becomes merely an obstacle on the path to accumulating credits.
And community colleges -- driven by convenience, economics, and, ironically enough, the completion agenda -- are quick to respond to “customer demand” by offering more and more online courses.
But instead of promoting an online model of education, community colleges should be doing more to keep faculty and students on campus and to foster a classroom and campus-based culture built upon a sense of academic engagement and community. That may sound outdated and unfashionable, but it’s a model of education that, as research supports, actually increases community college students’ chances of being academically successful.
I will never teach online. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “I have no wish to learn distanced methods of teaching simply to satisfy students who do not want to relate to me: teaching from afar would violate my own identity and integrity and only worsen the situation.”
I want to be part of an academic community and to teach in a classroom with students whom I get to know so that (as has happened in the past month) when I walk into my local pet store I know the cashier, a current student; or into the pharmacy and I know the tech, a former student; or attend a local concert and I know the musicians, most of whom are former students. I smile every time my wife tells me “we can’t go anywhere without bumping into one of your students.”
To engender that sense of community requires being present on campus and interacting face to face with my students. That’s not possible with the invisible lives of the online world.
Keith Kroll is an instructor in the English department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.