Last week, I took a question from Dan Allosso, “What’s to stop us from teaching online?”, the wrong way. I read it as a point about credentials, when what he really meant was this:
I’m looking at a very bleak market for traditional employment. I’ll have a PhD, I’ll have teaching fields, and possibly most important, I’ll have the all-important “platform” that agents and editors look for when processing non-fiction queries. But I probably won’t have a teaching gig. What’s to stop me from going direct to the market, with my own content on the web?
The answer to that question, Dan, is absolutely nothing. You can historicize all you want online (and I can think of a few people who’ve gained some prominence doing so), but the operative question should be how much are people willing to pay for Dan’s well-informed opinions. Unless he can get a bunch of people in other disciplines together and get that group accredited, the answer to that last question is almost certainly not enough money for Dan to live on. That’s because having a Ph.D. in history makes you labor, not management.
The people who can bring a bunch of scholars together and make a university out of it, oftentimes shadow universities only marginally connected to their original bricks and mortar institutions, are administrators and unfortunately many of them are thinking much bigger than any of us mere content providers. Follow me as I take you down the dark path of contemporary business advice literature.
Have you ever read The Four-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss? I can’t find my copy at the moment so I can’t quote any of it here, but it will absolutely crack you up if you can make your way through it. For my purposes here, this is my summary of Ferriss’ plan for making it in life:
1. Find something that people want to buy.
2. Outsource sale of said product to a web hosting company somewhere.
3. Outsource your personal life to Your Man In India.
4. Check your e-mail for only four hours each week.
5. Go surfing while the money rolls in.
This plan won’t work if you’re teaching online courses. As the Deseret News explained a few days back:
Weber State said at least right now, it takes as much time, if not more time, out of the professor’s day to teach an online course. Not only are the teachers often in constant contact with students, answering their questions and concerns, but they are also vigilantly adding more interactive tools to their classes.
The operative phrase in that paragraph is “at least right now.” At the moment, it takes more time to teach online classes, but this suggests that someday we can look forward to the four-hour work week when professors can sit back and let the classes essentially teach themselves. Leaving aside the question of whether students will actually learn anything those classes (which strikes me as a rather big aside), the problem with this scenario is that once we’ve reached the point when the classes can teach themselves, why are they going to have to hire professors to teach them in the first place?
In short, it’s administrators who are putting Ferriss’ philosophy into action, not the faculty. Education is their product and faculty are the outsourcing service at the end of the telephone line. While they’re out learning how to surf or skydive, we’ll all be staring at our respective computer screens praying that we still have a job next semester.
Think this won’t happen to you? You say they can’t teach music online? That’s where faculty productivity evaluation enters into the equation. If you can’t teach it online, they won’t want to teach it. Besides, those humanities students with their petty humanist complaints about justice and the like take far too much time away from learning how to skydive.
* With apologies to Michael Kammen.