Who’s Afraid of Distance Learning?

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

In today’s New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggests that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

Smith College

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to gain access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

Education at the crossroads: cookie cutter or cutting edge?

“Education has to be at the forefront of restoring this country,” said Bard College President Leon Botstein today, at a ceremony formally welcoming incoming Simon’s Rock provost Peter Laipson to his new post.

“The problem with America is an absence of discipline and an unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths,” Leon continued, elegantly making the case for liberal arts education as a crucial piece of the on-going struggle to bring our country back to its core values of democracy, tolerance and creativity.

Most importantly, he said, “young people need the tools to be able to think for themselves.”

So true–and yet this kind of active learning has to start long before the college level!  I contrast Leon’s remarks today with the parents’ open house I attended last week at my son’s middle school, where all of the teachers made reference to how their lesson plans included preparation for the MCAS exams (the Massachusetts version of the No Child Left Behind federally mandated standardized tests), which the 7th graders will be taking next spring.

The middle school principal, in his welcoming remarks, talked about school as a place to ignite students’ passions, but once the teachers took the stage there wasn’t much talk of passion, nor of the kind of student-centered learning that helps kids find out what they’re interested in.

In today’s networked world, kids don’t need to memorize information or formulas.  They need to be turned on to the excitement of learning; they need to be encouraged to develop their creativity, to take the risk of venturing into unexplored conceptual territory, to become the innovators our society so desperately needs.

It was good to hear Leon Botstein and Peter Laipson affirm Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, the founder of Simon’s Rock, as a social entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and who dreamed big and had the staying power to manifest her vision of an early college–a completely new idea back in 1966, and still quite unorthodox today.

Betty Hall realized that some high school students have the intellectual and social maturity to start college after the 10th grade, and she took the risk of actually trying it out.  The rest is history–the history of Simon’s Rock, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

As a Simon’s Rock alum (I earned my B.A. in English and journalism there in 1982) I can attest to the excitement of switching from the dull routine of high school to the much more intense small-group discussions that characterized Simon’s Rock classes then, and still do today.

I went to an excellent high school, Hunter College High School–and yet once I got to Simon’s Rock, in part because of the interesting, stimulating peer group, I was clearly in a whole new ballgame.  I was indeed encouraged to explore my passions, which at the time were reading and writing.  Under the guidance of outstanding mentors, I wrote a B.A. thesis on androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, while working part-time as a reporter for The Berkshire Courier, the Great Barrington weekly newspaper.  I credit those two experiences with the whole unfolding of my subsequent career, from the Ph.D. in literature to the on-going interest in and practice of journalism and media studies.

Leon is right that education has a key role to play in turning our country around.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in an earlier post, even at the college level things are not what they used to be, as the tenured faculty gives way to legions of adjuncts–freelancers with Ph.Ds–who now are frequently not even on campus, but rather teaching through distance learning platforms from their homes.

It’s too soon to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning.  It has the potential to be emancipatory, accessible to far more students, including those who could not afford the luxury of a four-year residential liberal arts education of the kind Leon Botstein was talking about today.  It could also turn into the worst kind of cookie-cutter education, MCAS on steroids.

One of the tasks of educators today has to be to enter with spirit into the unfolding of the distance learning revolution, making sure the technology is being used to promote active learning and critical thinking, not rote learning or multiple choice testing.  We also have to make sure that networked computer technology actually connects young people, rather than alienating them from each other and from potential mentors.

As Leon said, it’s not a question of teaching students to believe any particular truths or ways of seeing the world, it’s a question of enabling them to make their own informed observations, and giving them the tools to act on what they see and know.  We’re not talking about education as indoctrination, but about education as the constant opening of new doors to further understanding–a never-ending process that should not, and cannot be confined merely to the classroom.

Communicating the excitement of learning is the single most important role of a teacher at any grade level.  Once we teachers become jaded or bored with what we’re offering, it’s all over.  We have to find ways of making it new, by constantly leaving ourselves open to new ideas and viewpoints.  Often for me, it’s the students themselves who lead the way into new ways of seeing familiar texts or concepts.

It can be hard for a teacher to give up the powerful illusion of being the one who knows all the answers.   The truth is, we’re here to enable the next generation of thinkers to imagine questions that have not yet been asked or even thought of.

What could be more exciting than that?

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