“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

30 08 2011

You’ve probably already seen that Pew survey of university presidents. I think I saw it nearly everywhere yesterday. The part that made me think of the Upton Sinclair quote with which I titled this post was here:

Just over half of the 1,055 college presidents queried believe that online courses offer a value to students that equals a traditional classroom’s. By contrast, only 29 percent of 2,142 adult Americans thought online education measured up to traditional teaching.

My first inclination was to chalk this up to cultural differences. You know what I mean: University presidents are from Mars, the public is from Venus or something like that. But then I read this part of the Chronicle write-up of the Pew survey and realized that there’s something more important going on here:

Mr. Pepicello [the President of the University of Phoenix] believes that online education will spread even faster than most survey respondents indicated. “I don’t see how higher education can’t go in that direction,” he said. “People thought that shopping online or banking online were fads, and yet I can’t tell you the last time I was in my bank. They’re very nice people, and I like them, but I don’t need to see them very often,” thanks to online banking and ATM’s.

This is probably the most craven example of what Matt Damon called “MBA thinking” that I’ve ever seen in print. [Yes, I know the guy is from the University of Phoenix, but you just know half the administrators reading that story just started nodding their heads when they saw that quote.] Coincidentally, the New Yorker has a hilarious profile up of my favorite business goofball, Timothy Ferriss. They report:

In 2004, Ferriss, feeling burned out as the C.E.O. of a sports-nutrition company, where he worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, discovered that he preferred to spend his time learning the tango in Buenos Aires or archery in Kyoto. He also found that, by automating his business operations to the largest extent possible, he was able to pull this off.

Automate education and students will have more time to learn the tango in Buenos Aires! Who cares about the jobs lost in the process? Who cares if they don’t actually learn anything? All that time for contemplation and analysis is simply too inefficient!

MfD and I have been back and forth over the last few months about whether it is even possible to teach an online class where contemplation and reflection is possible. I actually think it is. The problem is that the people who are running America’s universities don’t seem to care whether it is or whether it isn’t. They want higher education to work more like an ATM machine. Check out this clip I got from a colleague over the weekend. It’s a rant by Douglas Rushkoff about how awful Blackboard is…unless you want to corner the online education market. How can anyone run a rewarding, academically rigorous online course in this environment?

For-profit education has been like this since its inception, but I think it’s the new austerity that’s turned public higher education into the functional equivalent of the savings and loan industry c. 1981. We create online programs because we’re desperate for the money that additional students bring. We tell ourselves that the education they’re getting is the same as they’d get on campus, even if it’s not, because our jobs depend upon it.

The reason our jobs depend upon it is not that face-to-face education somehow failed the prior generation of students. The reason our jobs depend upon it is that government aid to support higher education, something that used to be considered a public good, is drying up in the new age of austerity.

Excellence without money, to use a phrase I picked up from Historiann, is a losing proposition for everyone involved, at least in so far as it involves our imminent online-only educational future. The majority of university presidents may not see that, but thank goodness the majority of the public still does. That’s about the only thing that gives me hope for the future of universities everywhere.



10 responses

30 08 2011

Yes, the public’s skepticism about online ed is encouraging. But the question is will they pay what it costs to put a proffie in every classroom?

(Thanks for the link.)

30 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

We are in furious agreement here on two things: online classes can be contemplative and reflective; and the current investment in online across higher education globally is being driven by the worst possible reasoning, that has the least possible pedagogical benefit attached to it.

But I don’t share the view that public skepticism about online is encouraging, because I don’t think it’s all that clear what is being resisted, or why. Precisely because we need public support for universities, as Historiann says, we all need to begin to be much more assertive in public about the values and horizons of higher learning, including and especially those that are sometimes most effectively reached by putting people into this contemplative space.

So here’s my bit of public communication on the topic: the online learning which many of us respect and defend already has a prof in the virtual classroom, and often one who is willing to open up the teaching and learning experience in quite radical and self-challenging ways. That’s exactly how it achieves what it achieves.

I teach online because it’s the most creative and interesting thing I’ve ever done, and I am genuinely saddened by the awfulness we’re seeing in this sector at the moment. There’s a terrible complicity between the CEOs’ wish to use online to do more with less, and the LMS vendors’ wish to sustain this fantasy by selling us things we don’t need, or that don’t work, or that do bad things well, or good things badly. Those of us who are passionate both about our research and about good practice with our students are in a really complicated position as these two engage in the world’s longest, slowest, and perhaps most wrongheaded corporate handshake.

30 08 2011
Jonathan Rees


I know you’re thinking well enough now that there is absolutely nothing I could write in response to this that would surprise you in the least. And, of course, I disagree with none of this in the sense that you should do what you feel you should do based on your circumstances.

I remain engaged with this topic because I find it interesting both pedagogically since it makes me think about what goes right and what goes wrong in my own teaching. Perhaps our only real difference is that I’m more cynical about the future.

30 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Given that I didn’t set out to be obsessively worried about online learning any more than you, I think I’m probably in a permanent state of surprise about our correspondence! But in all seriousness, the point you make about optimism or cynicism in relation to higher education is I suspect the real challenge that unites so many who do different things at the moment. Do we have any meaningful prospect of managing change, on behalf of all the communities and commitments that we value, or is it inevitable, given the scale and complexity of the problem, that change will manage us? I think online learning is probably only the most vivid theatre at the moment for this particular drama.

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