Where is Mario Savio now that we really need him?

1 03 2012

I’ve spent the last few evenings working with my daughter on her scholarship applications for her first year of college next year. She’s already applied to most of the large state schools in our area, but even though she’s only heard from one of them (and got in) she still has to fill out applications in order to be considered for internal scholarships assuming she gets admitted to the other ones at all.

If you’re like me and haven’t applied for college in the last quarter century or so, then you may not know that the Internet has transformed the application process. No more April 15th letters going out with May 1st acceptance dates. The whole thing is now done mostly via e-mail and with rolling admissions. The thing is, and I just can’t get over this, at the places where my kid has applied, it’s done through the college’s e-mail system, not hers. That’s right, you have to get an e-mail account at the university you’re applying to in order to get messages about whether you’ve been admitted or not and you have to apply for scholarships online before you know whether you’re even admitted too. It’s been hard enough to get her to check her own e-mail regularly. Now she has to check three of them? This strikes me as very bad marketing.

So does everything else they do to make prospective students feel like they’re nothing but punch cards. I spent half an hour on hold with one school earlier this week only to be told that I can’t reset my child’s password for her because it would be a FERPA violation. [And no, I’m not a helicopter parent. She’s in high school or at orchestra practice during normal working hours.] Do we really want to make applying for college like trying to get a phone number for Amazon.com?

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to suspect that attending college almost anywhere is getting to be the same way already. Bureaucrats and penny-pinchers use technology to put all the burden of jobs that used to be handled by staff onto students because they don’t want to pay for the cost of staff or additional faculty to do it for them.

Consider student course evaluations. They used to be done in class with pencil and paper. In the ongoing discussion at my campus about this subject, it keeps coming back to the cost of processing the forms. Type evaluations into a proprietary computer program and the contractor will process the forms for us. If students write their comments in, they (allegedly) have to be re-typed by University staff so that professors won’t recognize the handwriting. However, since every classroom is not full of computers (thank goodness) this second option costs students time, so response rates drop dramatically. I’m guessing online is going to win in the end. After all, everyone else is doing it that way already.

Here’s a different example of the same scary automated future: Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a test program for computerized college advising. Here’s the Governor of Tennessee bragging about it:

“What this million dollars will help us to do- two or three things- to simplify, it’ll make it easier for students to understand the pathway they need to their degree. It’ll help colleges better prepare to make certain their course loads better match students’ demands and desires for completion.”

But what if students need actual advice? “Should I go to graduate school, magic computer program?” “Future cloudy. Ask again later.” Nobody cares about answering student questions if the students are all just numbers. Yesterday’s news about improperly streamlining community college students into unnecessary remedial courses strikes me as a different aspect of the same problem.

Of course, online courses in general are designed entirely around this same principle. We don’t want to pay for more classroom space, so use your own bedroom. We don’t want to buy you a computer, so use the one that you already have. Who cares how effective the online teaching process is? We live in the age of technologically-induced austerity so this has to be the future.

It used to be that warm feelings for universities led to donations from alumni. In order to elicit the same reaction in our glorious all-online future, all they’ll have left will be their football teams.

PS I’ve used the video clip above on this blog before, but it just keeps getting more and more appropriate over time. It almost makes me glad that Mario Savio didn’t live to see that the impersonalized educational bureaucracy he fought has won the war that he started.


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4 03 2012
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[…] Where is Mario Savio when we need him? […]

13 04 2012
Why professors are like low-wage workers (even if their wages aren’t particularly low). « More or Less Bunk

[…] job as it saps productivity. Perhaps that also applies to workers talking to the product, for as Mario Savio once said, the students are the raw materials in the factory that is modern higher education and the faculty […]

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