Why it’s time to strike the word “bubble” from my vocabulary.

9 05 2011

When I was a high school debater, I did a lot of research about the death penalty. In doing so, I managed to convince myself that execution was a deterrent to crime and decided to support it from there on out. Eventually, I realized that the other people on my side were so bloodthirsty that I no longer cared whether the death penalty was a deterrent or not, so I switched sides. I think it’s time to do the same thing now with this whole “higher education bubble” issue.

What’s driving me over the edge here is not their bloodthirstiness (even though there is an element of Glenn Beck-style “get the eggheads” in some of the pieces that I’ve seen lately), it’s their absolutely certainty. I can’t even read the entire article, but I know that anything with the title “How online education could stop the higher-ed bubble from bursting” is pretty much guaranteed to send me over the edge. I already know that the other side of this argument will be absent from a piece designed to make online classes look like our collective salvation:

Economists and financial analysts first warned about the growing higher-education bubble in 2009. The bubble, they said, is fed by rising tuition, increasing enrollments, and crushing school debt that often can’t be paid by recent graduates who can’t find a good-paying job in a down economy.

And just as Americans were urged to invest in tech companies before the dot-com crash of 2000, or to buy property while housing prices skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, Americans are encouraged today – by everyone from family members to lawmakers – to sign up for college classes, even if it requires massive loans.

For-profit colleges’ expansion of online education has helped feed the sector’s massive growth, but it might be web-based education that prevents the disastrous effects of a burst economic bubble, educational technologists said.

Or perhaps it will demonstrate to students and employers the utter disinterest of anyone in higher education of actual learning and send students running to the exits in droves as a result. A piece of the mother of all “higher education in crisis” articles (which I linked to last night) can help me make this point better:

Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail?

You teach the twenty students because they’ll learn a lot more about art history if you’re in the room with them than if you’re not. [They also won’t be able to get someone else to take their tests for them, but that’s an subject for an entirely different post.] Perhaps you could get away with outsourcing all your grading to Your Man in India for a while, but what are the students going to say when they want to talk about their essays? [And if you don’t use essays as a means to evaluate student performance, that just proves my overall point.] E-mail replacing office hours? That actually sounds like a good idea, but I’ll save that subject for later too.

In short, if being pro-education bubble means that I have to stand on the same side as a bunch of online education charlatans, I think it’s time for me to rename my argument. I still think my notion of a “student bubble” is true, but I no longer want to be confused with people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

But how then can I fit my argument on a bumper sticker? “Poor university administration based on highly unrealistic expectations of future student growth” just doesn’t have the power to attract followers. Therefore, catchier suggestions which don’t use the word “bubble” in the comments below would be much appreciated.


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3 responses

9 05 2011
Middle Seaman

The only bubble in high-ed is management salaries. Other education related bubbles are based on: the current lousy economy, the market is basically the financial sector and several department stores (i.e. no industry, no production of any kind and massive need for slaves for service and agriculture) and, last, the overwhelming power of the rich.

The national priority, therefore, is to support the rich. The rich don’t need educated people, they want to destroy education (they already started at the bottom and intend to go up).

If one is even minimally optimistic, the country will dismantle most of its financial sector and will start new industries. We need many educated people for that. Therefore, the country will have to subsidize education and the price of education will decline.

Otherwise, we live in El Salvador.

9 05 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I’d buy your bumper sticker in the long form, but I have to speak up for online education charlatans, of whom I’m one. Down here in Australia we’re also being told that the solution to the bubble is to let it float up to the cloud, and believe me this is even more alarming to those of us who really are trying to teach all sorts of things meaningfully, quietly and quite well online.
So I’m with you if we’re debating the sustainability of global expectations of student growth fuelled by rising levels of personal and government debt, hedged against the promise of future employment in sectors that haven’t even invented themselves yet. But I don’t think online education is either the problem or the solution. The problem is the lazy search for cheap modes of customer engagement and service. Which is also a bit too long for the bumper sticker, I’m afraid.

10 05 2011
Middle Seaman

Online classes do make sense for one type of classes. These are survey type and straightforward textbook classes. Instead of the mindless frontal presentation where student seldom have questions, they are never prepared ahead of time, I might as well do it online.

Analytic classes, mathematically oriented classes are better taught in class with at least problem solving done during the discussion.

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