A college education without the education part.

14 11 2010

I just got back from the AAUP shared governance conference in DC and as a result am absolutely brimming over with blogging material that I’ll get to in the next few days as time allows. Until then, I want to get something that showed up on my Google Reader over the weekend before I forget about it. This essay by Berkeley’s Wendy Brown (via UD) is an absolutely brilliant smackdown of online education:

As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy. Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums. They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns. On-line education necessarily emphasizes what Edley refers to as “content retention,” rather than what liberal arts education has long promised: the cultivation of thoughtful, worldly, discerning, perspicacious, and articulate civic-minded human beings. Thus to substitute on-line for on-campus education, especially in those first two years of college when students are initiated into university level inquiry, is to spurn the enduring Socratic notion of learning as a “turning of the soul.” It is also to privilege those courses that conform best to large-scale cyber teaching, those with the most information-based content. It would thus further orient students and the future of the university toward education conceived simply as job training and credentialing.

Let me add something to this from a labor-oriented perspective. Teaching information-based content is not only inadequate from an educational standpoint, it is a deliberate effort to de-skill instructors. The cultivation of thought takes skill and thought: precisely the kind of thing that one learns in a good graduare program. If you set up a class so that instructors only have to oversee multiple choice tests, it is much easier to simply substitute any old person into the role of professor. Do that, and it becomes increasingly easy to pay those people less money. If California wasn’t broke, Berkeley wouldn’t even imagine offering degrees online, which is obviously what Spurred Brown’s analysis..

So what happens when great schools start emulating bad ones? Brown asks what should have been an obvious question:

[F]or students, it is not clear what the incentive would be to pay UC, Columbia or NYU prices for on-line courses. When operations like “Straighter Line” offer as many undergraduate courses as a student can take for $99/month, when growing competition has pushed down the average price of public university on-line instruction to $500/course, when open sourcing (at MIT and elsewhere) is improving and on the rise, what would generate a substantial market for an on-line curriculum priced at current and future UC tuition levels? Why would UC-eligible students who did not get into UC, could not afford to leave home to attend a UC, or who seek to become eligible junior transfers to UC, pay UC prices for on-line courses?

I suspect the fine folks at Berkeley would say that students will get a Berkeley degree either way, but that is letting the brand drive the product delivery. A Berkeley education is presumably worth the money because people actually learn things there. Dilute that brand by offering an inherently inferior online product and it threatens the value of everyone’s degree. More importantly, it assumes that students who actually want to attend college online actually care about the quality of the education they get there rather than just getting the degree.

Perhaps I’ll believe that when I see more college students taking getting education 1.0 exhibit that same ideal.



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