When professors disappear.

7 02 2011

If you read the same blogs I read, you probably already saw this piece by Randall Stross in yesterday’s NYT. It has one of the most striking first sentences that I’ve ever read in that paper:

When colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Steve from grad school who thought that the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s decision to broadcast Stan Schultz’s History 102 class over the local cable channel was going to render all of our graduate educations worthless in the end.

“We will never be replaced by a machine,” I told Steve. “Without human contact, education is meaningless!” Stross reports that one school, Carnegie Mellon, has come very close to a self-contained course with no instructor at all, but still toes the party line on the notion that human capital is crucial to the educational experience.

But what’s keeping a less-scrupulous school from making professors disappear entirely? The cost of the technology, explains Stross:

Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each.

Proponents of distance education might tell you something about how wonderful it is that students can learn all the way from India or in their pajamas, but anybody who knows anything about labor history knows that this kind of large-scale technological investment is really all about costs. Professors demand salaries. Cut out the professors and save the cost of their salaries.

But that’s where the labor history analogy breaks down. The Bonsack cigarette rolling machine not only destroyed the jobs of untold thousands of workers, it led to really, really cheap cigarettes. Online education, an education so bad that some employers won’t even consider someone with a degree earned from a for-profit college administered this way, is actually seven times more expensive than a real education at a typical community college. Professors haven’t disappeared entirely yet, but obviously none of the cost-savings from online education have been passed on to students. Since even online courses with poorly-paid adjuncts save schools so much money in costs compared to real classes, shouldn’t they cost less rather than seven times more?

I guess Steve never counted on the fact that the people who wanted to destroy our jobs were either too greedy or too stupid to implement their evil plan properly.




2 responses

7 02 2011
Pushbutton teacher, now on public access television! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] Rees hits another one out of the park today with “When Professors Disappear,” his demolition of the magical thinking about online courses, for-profit colleges, and the […]

4 11 2013
“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] post down a well-worn path (and you can read an earlier Schultz-inspired post along those lines here), an article from the Boston Globe I read over the weekend made me think of Schultz for a different […]

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