The Stepford courses.

30 04 2012

Have you ever noticed that everything is always sunny in the land of online courses? This example of online education propaganda disturbed me in particular as it comes out of my alma mater:

“You’ll hear a lot of faculty say, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t do a lot of what I need to do online,’” says Jeff Russell, dean of the Division of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost of Life Long Learning and a member of the effort’s organizing team with Brower and Maury Cotter of the Office of Quality Improvement. “When you listen to each one of them, they’re not doing it the same way, but there are certain tenets that are the same. The touchstone is quality and excellence, and we don’t want to give that up.”

That’s right, the professors are always cheery, the students are always learning and nobody ever, ever cheats. Well, over the weekend, Historiann went and rained on their parade:

“College is just a waste of time and money, and neither students, parents, nor taxpayers are getting their money’s worth at traditional brick-and-mortar nonprofit unis. So let’s spend government money on the kind of education at the kind of institutions that show the lowest return on investment (as measured by alumni employment rates and loan repayment rates): online education and/or for-profit universities.


Even after drinking a whole bottle of this, it still doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.”

Let me crib my explanation from her comments: College is too expensive, so online education is supposed to bring the cost down. However, the powers that be can’t admit that the product is inferior or nobody would sign up for it. They also can’t charge less for it than for face-to-face courses because that would implicitly suggest that it was inferior and maybe even undercut their bread and butter. The result? Online education advocates inside the academy and in the for-profit sector are forced to argue that black is white and that freedom is slavery.

Furthermore, they’re forced to make these arguments (like in the Wisconsin article I linked to above) almost entirely by anecdote. A retired dentist from Sheboygan loves online courses, but no mention gets made of the many frustrated working parents who drop out yet still end up on the hook for their student loans.

Here’s what keeps me up at night, though: What happens when the greedheads get smart and start discounting online courses over their face-to-face equivalents? “Sure,” they’ll say, “online courses aren’t as good as real college, but they’ll teach all the job skills you really need if you pay attention and do the work.” Then instead of trying to cash in and get out, they develop the innovative and interesting courses that I keep hearing are just over the horizon and gather revenue through volume rather than just through high prices.

Sure, there’ll always be a Harvard and an MIT. But what happens to everything from a community college to regional comprehensive universities like mine if they get priced out of the market by an inferior online good? Tenured professors could all be replaced by strangely submissive robots and nobody would even notice!!!

Alright, it’s time for me to go into a finals-induced hiatus now. Hopefully, I’ll have some less scary stories to blog about when I come out of grading jail.



3 responses

30 04 2012
Barbara Sullivan

Don’t worry–the robo-graders are coming to set you free! 🙂

I wonder if historians are, by nature and paradoxically, futurists–or maybe it’s teachers in general. I know that among the many blogs I subscribe to, yours is one I always click on, even when I’m ruthlessly deleting without reading most of them for lack of time or energy. I read yours for the antidote: it’s like a strong cup of coffee boiled in a pot, the old fashioned way–a little gritty, scalding hot, and definitely unsweetened.

I’m going to grading jail now too–but you know, the thing is that once the cell door shuts behind me and I resign myself to the length of my sentence, I always find jail more rewarding than anywhere else. That’s because I’m a community college writing teacher, so “grading” is really about listening and responding to the raw truth of students’ lives, witnessing their effort to think critically when the consequences are not just academic, but truly life and death. My students’ subject matter is domestic violence, child molestation, poverty so desperate that one of them tried eating glue as a little girl, homelessness, addiction, and real jail. They write what they know. They write the stories that they are finally privileged to tell, having made it to college and all.

Is anybody listening?

I wonder how robots will grade their efforts. Sometimes I think we must wait for AI to evolve enough for robots to learn compassion, and teach it to the humans in charge.

30 04 2012

If the robots are doing the grading, who will grade the robots? Seriously: has anyone thought about assessment yet w/r/t computer grading? I thought not.

Thanks for the shout-out, Jonathan.

5 05 2012
What’s the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix? « More or Less Bunk

[…] that’s the answer to my title question. Maybe this is the thing that’s been keeping me up at night. Or perhaps greed will take […]

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