In 1892, William Weihe, the former President of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union, testified before Congress that his union:
“never objects to [technological] improvements and makes allowances in every particular where there are improvements…[W]henever there is an improvement made by which certain men will be done away with, then their jobs will be done away with. There is no objection.”
By 1909, his union had effectively disappeared, relegated to a couple of small specialty mills in Ohio.
I realize that I’ve been kind of shrill lately, but this kind of complacency just scares me to death. Yes, skilled iron and steel workers faced a particularly steep hill to climb during the late-nineteenth century because mechanized steel production was a huge improvement over hand puddling, but the question in education is not whether MOOCs and online education are superior to face-to-face instruction. [When Harvard and Princeton start giving actual credit at Harvard and Princeton for their MOOCs, then maybe we can begin to question that assumption.] The question is whether MOOCs and online education are sufficient to serve as substitutes for the face-to-face instruction that so many of us provide.
It’s easy to guess how I’d answer that question, but imagine you’re a college student who’s been convinced that all he or she needs is a degree rather than an education in order to make it in life. Which path are you going to choose?
What faculty need to understand is that a lot of other players in this discussion, particularly the ones who don’t actually teach for a living, are using similar criteria. In other words, they couldn’t care less whether the future of higher education actually teaches students anything or not. Some of these people are interested primarily in efficiency and improved test scores. Some of them are interested in their bottom lines. Some of these people just hate universities.
For purposes of the primary audience for this blog, it is also worth noting that precious few participants in this discussion have any interest in the economic situation facing college professors, adjunct and tenure-track alike. Much to my continued alarm, the people ignoring our economic concerns includes an incredibly high number of actual college professors. They seem to think it is not their place to object to “improvements,” and are willing to make allowances for any such changes even if they work against their own self-interest.
Perhaps if more of us actually understood that there’s a target on all our backs, this shocking degree of complacency will finally change.