Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Now that it's fairly easy to take courses online, numerous writers are contemplating the coming demise of the "brick and mortar university". I rather like that term. There's something charmingly wonky about the terms techno-geeks come up with to describe (or perhaps demean) the offline world. "Dead tree media", "brick and mortar stores", and the like evoke "flesh and blood" in my mind.
The problem with these articles is that they tend to be written in what I'd call the "bullying nerd" voice. The writer, understandably, wants to promote some new technology, so they make fun of or threaten those sticks in the mud who stand in the way of progress. "Yeah, it's nice that you still like your farty old bricks and mortar schools and moldy old books, Poindexter! But, guess what?! The Internet is here now and it will ROCK YOU!!" With online universities, they often seem to be surprised or offended to find that academics tend to be very skeptical about sweeping social changes. It's not exactly a revelation though.
Online courses are cheaper, which is, of course, a big argument in their favor. Instead of having a professor teach 30 students, you can have them teach 400 students, and even, hypothetically, recycle the lecture videos. This could save students a lot of money. There is a loss of quality, perhaps, but a lot of big universities are handing the courses over to grad students who haven't even learned the subject yet, so the quality of teaching isn't exactly a focus at present. And the price of a university education has reached a tipping point.
Writing on the topic, Don Tapscott, makes the same point, noting that "the big universities that regard their prime role to be a centre for research, with teaching as an inconvenient afterthought, and class sizes so large that they only want to “teach” through lectures" are particularly "vulnerable, especially at a time when students can watch lectures online for free by some of the world’s leading professors on sites like Academic Earth." Indeed, junior faculty who could spend their prime years becoming great teachers- many of whom genuinely love teaching- are instead put on the "publish or perish" treadmill and told that focusing on teaching is a bit unprofessional. I've actually been told, "you should focus on research and give as little energy as possible to teaching". The undergrads suffer because the system treats them as little more than a meal ticket. As a result, a startling number of them drop out. None of this, incidentally, is much of an argument for making instruction less personal via the Internet, but it suggests why already alienated undergrads might not shed any tears to see their profs go.
Online courses seem, to me, best suited for older students who just want to learn the subject and get done. For undergraduates, the advantage is that they can do the course work whenever they'd like to, and they're on the Internet all the time anyway. They don't have to schlep to class three times a week and they can let their own motivation guide their progress. If, that is, they are especially self-motivated. The advocates of online education assume that all students are especially self-motivated at 17 or 18. Even stranger, they sometimes get offended if you suggest that putting an 18 year old in front of a computer and telling them to do their coursework for four months might not be a winning bet. Parents of 18 year olds, I find, think differently.
And, let's be fair, it isn't just teenagers who have trouble doing their work on their own! Lately, I've been schlepping to my university to work on my dissertation in one of the offices in the department. Why? So I'm not... doing this, basically! There's something about being surrounded by other people who are learning the same subject- a community of junior and senior scholars, in other words- that is not just a great inspiration, but also keeps you on your toes. I work better when I am around other people who are working. And I feel like I'm actually accomplishing something, instead of lonely scribbling. Another word for "flesh and blood" and "brick and mortar" is real. Thus far, nothing compares to the give and take of human interaction.
I also teach a lot better in front of human beings. Things I had planned out for my class discussions that seemed dynamite in my study suddenly fizzle and I have to change plans on the ground. And the reason I can tell when I'm boring them, or over-explaining something, is by observing their body language. Eighteen year olds have very direct body language! I can't see how an online lecturer can intuit when they need to move on to the next point before everyone falls asleep!
The "step with me now, into the future!" people do have a point- for me, an ideal course would be a veritable salmagundi: blending lectures, discussions, online content, documentaries, projects, and lots of books. It wouldn't be an afterthought. And I am certainly keen to create more web content that educates and inculcates a love of my subject. For me, teaching is the main course, not an appetizer.
They have less of a point when they start talking about the supposed "monopoly" that professors jealously maintain over "privileged information". Academics have different reasons to prefer human interaction to lecturing over Youtube, but I have yet to meet one who sits up nights worrying that too many people will learn about their favorite subject. Professors admittedly do maintain the elitist belief that they should get paid to teach- imagine that!- but many of them already post their course requirements, lecture notes, and even lectures online. And, if they have the time, most of them are thrilled to dicuss their subject with anyone who asks, whether or not they've paid tuition. Just ask. You'll see.
But, I think my problem with the new technology bullies is that, in their enthusiasm about the newest and the latest gadgets, they treat the students as an afterthought. I have talked to dozens of undergrads, and not once have I been told that the problem with their education is that it's too engaging and personal. When they envision a university education, they still see it as an "experience". They still want to be challenged and interact with senior scholars who genuinely care about their personal development. Contrary to adult belief, they like structure. They resent the faceless bureaucracy of our huge Mall University, and I do too. But none of them tell me they'd rather be alone, in their room, doing online exams. They still see it as a rite of passage and part of their personal development. As should be obvious by now, personal development always happens in the real world, offline.
Lastly, it's hard for me to envision parents who, instead of sending their children to be educated and mentored by experts in their chosen field within a larger community of peers, would rather put them in an apartment and have them work online for four years. Sure, they'd like a cheaper university education. But, if you asked parents and students- and their administrative spokespeople seemingly never do!- whether universities should save money by cutting back on their ridiculously bloated and top-heavy administrative structures, or by teaching in a way that is less personal and individualized, well, I think they'd make better choices than some of the experts.