Creating the (online) college experience.

2 07 2012

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf imagines one particular aspect of our glorious all-online higher educational future that I don’t think I’ve discussed here yet:

The economics of higher education certainly point toward a future where a lot of young people take advantage of distance learning to get a much cheaper education. But even if online learning becomes the norm, won’t the desires for both amenities and “the college experience” persist? I think so, and I can imagine variations ways those desires might be met.

Read the article if you’re interested in the exact pitch. What I find most interesting is that the pitch is necessary at all. Consider this general intro blog post to online ed that I just Googled up, for example:

Various methods of delivering online education programs are being offered where students may choose the type of learning and evaluation format that is suitable and effective for them. The thing about online courses is that learning is done at the pace of the student and the same goes for the evaluation. Students who engage in these programs really want to study as all efforts are self motivated.

[emphasis added]

How successful will Johnny be at online college if all he really wants to do is go drinking on Thursday and attend the football game Saturday morning? Not very. Yet the online education industry is going to have to come up with a substitute for the “college experience?” Anything to create a market to entice students into a market where they would not otherwise go.

I think this all gets back to something that Britney keeps writing in various places around this blog. The online education industry is interested in its own self interest, not the interests of students. If regular higher ed listens to people like Jeff Selingo, the same will be true of us too. Unfortunately, nobody associated with higher education asks students what kind of education they want anymore. They just assume that more technology and the increased flexibility that comes with it is better, whether it’s actually cheaper for students or not.

This does not mean that I advocate students spending too much money just to keep me employed. Quite the opposite. I think professors have to do more to help students make smarter educational decisions in order to make sure our industry remains sustainable, but we have to do it with a different set of priorities besides “grow at any cost.”

For example, going to grad school in the humanities (never a good idea for so many reasons, even in the best of times) just got a lot more expensive if you have to borrow money in order to attend it. How then can anyone tell prospective grad students to go into debt up to their eyeballs in order to enter a profession in which even the “good” jobs don’t pay all that much in the great scheme of things and the bad ones pay a whole lot worse? They’re thinking of their own interests, not their students’.

The great irony here is that losing the humanities graduate “student experience” (the anxiety, back-biting, petty politics, etc.) would probably be an improvement for most people. Unfortunately, disrupting the grad student market probably isn’t lucrative enough for the purveyors of the next big thing in online clown college. They have to screw up the part of higher education that still mostly works.



One response

2 07 2012

I keep going back and reading Thorstein Veblen! Once the original equation is changed from education=mission to education=business, all else follows, whether by the nature of the beast or by foul conspiracy. Here we have the latest phase of the process. The very elements that have driven up the costs of “education” beyond the reach of most who aspire to it are now decrying the high costs, and pointing to a “solution” that will benefit those elements. Meanwhile, those who aspire to it have bought into the new definition, so they don’t really even understand what they’re aspiring to. A nice closed system. As you suggest, in that notsobrave new world ANY cost is too high, because what it pays for isn’t worth anything.

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