AHA Day 2: A disaster of biblical proportions.

6 01 2012

No, I’m not talking about the entire conference. How could I be? The weather in Chicago is absolutely stunning for January. [This would be warm for January in Pueblo, let alone Chicago.] I’m certainly not talking about the panel I went to today about online teaching, where I heard two very dedicated community college professors describe how to make the best of what can be a very bad situation. The disaster that I’m talking about is teaching history online itself.

Where do I start?

I think I’ll actually begin with this NYT article from a few days ago about Idaho mandating online courses for secondary school students. It’s part of this whole series they’ve been doing about online education in secondary schools and the entire article is well worth the read. However, I think this is the part that should give us all night sweats:

[T]he [Idaho] plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.

There’s simply no way I’m going to defend lecturing in this post (although I could, and probably should in this space at some point in the future). My problem is with the part about turning teachers into guides for lessons delivered over the Internet. It’s pretty clear from the panel I went to that entirely online teaching is already there, and that we really need to be careful that this doesn’t become the new normal for all forms of higher education.

I’m pretty sure that this is going to end up being a multi-part post, but let me begin here simply by telling you one important thing I learned about teaching history online that I didn’t already know:

It’s almost completely dependent on the open parts of the web to provide historical content.

I’m not sure why I didn’t realize this fact already. I guess I had this image of self-contained Blackboard modules in my head. Maybe that vision included a few links, but I didn’t realize how important those links were to the basic delivery of historical information and the daily operation of the class until I went to this panel.

Any educated Internet user (and especially online teachers) should recognize a few problems with this situation immediately:

1. Some sites are more trustworthy than others. Enough said. You teach it already. Spend the whole course online and you’ll teach it a lot more.

2. Since the Internet is a fleeting thing almost by definition, web sites more than occasionally disappear. When they do, it’s the professor’s job to find a suitable replacement (as if they didn’t have enough to do already).

3. Imagine having to teach computer skills along with history to someone who doesn’t know the difference between a .pdf and a Microsoft Word document. Did they teach you how to do that in grad school? Not me.

But here’s the thing I couldn’t get out of my head through that whole panel: If the role of teachers in this society is redefined as Internet tour guide, what happens when the computer can do that for us cheaper and perhaps more effectively (assuming technology can’t do that already)? What then will teachers and professors bring to the table when it’s time to renew our existing contracts? Our smiles?

One of the presenters mentioned in an aside that the administration where he works wants all the benefits of online education like bigger classes full of tuition-paying students and lower electric bills (because you can have fewer classrooms), but isn’t willing to commit the money for resources. I think he meant technological resources, but faculty are a resource too.

If professors can be replaced by a machine (or, even worse, just the Internet at large) the powers that be are not going to worry about the quality of the pedagogy. I bet they’ll actually brag about lowering the costs of college. But for the professors that are being replaced, this development would be a disaster of biblical proportions. Their skills will be obsolete and there will be nowhere else left to market them. Seriously, don’t community college faculty already have enough plagues and apocalypses to deal with on a daily basis?

What should scare the rest of us is that their plague is clearly moving in our direction. Are you going to head for the hills and try to wait it out like in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or are you going to stand and fight?

PS The panel also gave me yet more reasons why an all-online future would be a similar disaster for students too. I’ll try to explain them when I take up this topic again in this space, maybe sometime next week.



6 responses

7 01 2012
Leslie M-B

Don’t get me started. Suffice it to say our state superintendent has an online Bachelor’s in something like weights and measures, and our legislature is full of public education-hating Republicans who propose things like doing away with kindergarten (already not mandatory in Idaho, by the way–we screw ’em up early here).

I’m standing up and fighting, but if this whole issue isn’t solved by the time my kindergartner graduates from his crunchy K-8 school, yes, I will go all Decameron.

7 01 2012
Jonathan Rees


That’s funny because the Decameron reference was provoked by the effect of online education on we academics rather than our kids, but I certainly see your point too. My thoughts on Pueblo City Schools are deeply, deeply conflicted. I also think that charter schools are deeply immoral, but at the same time I don’t want to sacrifice my kid to my principles. I guess I’ll fight now, then answer that question if things ever really get that far.

7 01 2012

First time commenting, but I have been following your blog since grad school dragged me reluctantly out of Colorado. I just wanted to add that here in Michigan, a new study by the National Education Policy Center has found that only 27 percent of online schools met federal achievement standards in the last school year. That compares to about 51 percent at traditional schools. These statistics, of course, are based on K-12 but the ramifications for college education are obvious.

7 01 2012
A disaster of biblical proportions, ctd. « More or Less Bunk

[…] has no advantage other than convenience and still runs into the labor problem with online education that I mentioned yesterday). Otherwise, the new method of conveying historical information is inevitably going to involve a […]

9 01 2012
“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!” « More or Less Bunk

[…] you didn’t recognize the “disaster of biblical proportions” reference in the last couple of posts, it was indeed from Ghostbusters. In the scene above, that awful man from the EPA turned […]

26 07 2013
What We're Reading: 126th Annual Meeting Edition - American Historical Association

[…] AHA Day 2: A disaster of biblical proportions. […]

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