I had an excellent, thought-provoking discussion last week at UC San Diego courtesy of iGrad with a really well-chosen group of professors: Dr. Beyer of National University, a nonprofit online university that is the second-largest private institution in California; Dr. Allison Rossett, a professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State; Joe Safdie, a poet who teaches at San Diego Mesa Community college; and Monte Johnson, a philosophy prof at UCSD whose field is Aristotle.

Johnson was especially good to have on the panel because he’s a principled, absolutist opponent of online education. He said repeatedly that while he could abide the use of hybrid models and online resources to supplement the classroom experience, he thought it was “absurd” to pretend that a degree granted entirely online could possibly approach the quality of one in the traditional classroom. He handed out a Xerox (not available online) of a list of references to research critical of the quality of online classes; on the opposite side was this letter signed by hundreds of professors objecting to Washington State’s “2020 Commission on the Future of Higher Education” , strenuously objecting to the commission’s recommendations about accountability, productivity, and increased availability of online classes.

It’s easy to satirize the position of someone defending the status quo, who trivializes and dismisses “education by
CD-ROM and internet” out of motives that include inherent conservativism and fear of losing one’s own job and respected position in society. There was more than a whiff of that spirit in the room. But I think Johnson made some really good points that should be taken under consideration, not to stall this transformation but to guide it.

1) Open educational resources don’t equal education. Access to a video of a lecture is not the same as access to a class. Content is infrastructure–the first step.
2) We can’t codify exactly what might be lost in the transition from online to in-person learning, but it pays to look at what goes on in the classroom really really closely so we can either replicate it or enhance it in the online environment, or supplement it with real-world experience in hybrid models. At one point I asked Johnson what it is exactly that he does in his philosophy class that he thinks can’t be done online. “Do you teach through the laying on of hands?” No, he said, but I look people in the eye, I call on them, we converse back and forth. Safdie mentioned then that he teaches through videoconference, which also involves a form of eye contact; platforms like Moodle allow for plenty of either real-time text-based chat or posting on a Facebook-like wall, which seems like a fine way to discuss philosophy to me–not too different in fact from the promulgation of ideas through a series of written papers in dialogue with each other, like at a symposium for example.

3) From the Washington letter: “One of the problems with the newest crop of distance-learning institutions is that they are motivated entirely by profit.”

This is true. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Public institutions need to get involved in defining online education or it will be defined for them by a set of institutions with very different agendas.

4) “In reality a privileged few will continue to enjoy the personal and economic benefits of face-to-face instruction at schools like
Stanford, UC Berkeley, and M.I.T. The less fortunate citizens of our state will make do with downsized and underfunded campuses or settle for inferior and dehumanizing “virtual”  alternatives.”

The thought of a two-tiered system like this makes me queasy. Online-enabled higher education doesn’t have to be inferior or dehumanizing. It can represent the best of what education has to offer today. Yet there’s a danger that this will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The DIY U future allows community college students anywhere in the country to access the same number of library books, the same lectures and course materials as are available at MIT and Stanford. It can also allow students to collaborate across institutions and form networks of peers and mentors outside the state and city where they happen to live and go to school. In this way there’s a potential to overcome old hierarchies. But it’s not a given that things will turn out this way.  The reality today is that students with the fewest resources are at the institutions with the fewest resources, and that those who are accessing online-only education are doing so largely because they have to work while they go to school.

If people who care about quality and equality in higher education don’t get deeply involved in the use of technology to stretch the resources we have in order to educate everyone to the best of our ability and their abilities, then the future will be shaped by people with worse motives and visions.

8 Responses to “Education and the Laying on of Hands”

  1. People like choices. The idea of a DIY U gives people more choices in the way they learn. But people also want to see value in their choices. Right now, it seems people are sorting out what’s valuable in higher ed as more choices arise in the way students can take coursework.

  2. DCBronco says:

    Anya, I watched(heard you first) you on C-span a couple of weeks ago and was really impressed. The San Diego event sounds like it was the usual “higher” education fun. Professor Johnson does sound like a complete joy to debate. I assume since he’s against distance education and is a Philosophy prof, he achieved his degree strictly through direct oral teachings. If he doesn’t believe you can learn properly from a video, how do you learn from a book. Obviously he doesn’t have a HDTV either.

    I also find the idea of online institutions being strictly about making money funny coming from someone involved in traditional higher education. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that is the case with most higher education and trade schools. But, universities could teach Haliburton a thing or two about how to steal money. Nothing about the constant price hikes and the unending of supply of “Jay-walking’ contestants leads me to believe that standard education practices are doing anything but turning a profit. And watching GWU expand it’s holdings in Washington convinced me a long time ago that colleges were about making money first and foremost. GW is in the process of building a mini-mall on campus at the moment.

    I think the inter-activity online-education can provide would be a step in the right direction. More of a “living” education system would be ideal. The classroom is over-rated. Toyota could remake it’s company by watching the hard braking classroom education provides on the average students thinking processes.

    Again I was really impressed with your interview. Hope to see more of you soon. Keep up the fight.

  3. Carmen Dominguez says:

    Good discussion. It would have been interesting to have someone from the for-profit sector on the panel. I happened to get my Master’s degree online (GCU) and found the experience to be more personal and valuable than sitting in a large lecture hall at a large 4 year-public where my instructor never once “looked me in the eye” (probably didn’t know I was even there!). The value of my online experience came from the interaction (via a Learning Management System) between my classmates who were from many different disciplines and walks of life. There were active-duty military folks – some deployed in Iraq while in school, housewives, working adults (like myself) as well as folks from 4 year publics and privates who could not take advantage of the free tuition assistance offered by their employers because the traditional schedules didn’t work with their work schedules. I guess what I am trying to say is to hear opponents of online education speak about how horrible it is, they should at least try it and speak to those who have and above all, have an open mind. After all it is where we are heading, not just in the for-profit arena, but in all of higher education.

  4. Mark Notess says:

    We already have a multi-tiered educational system, ranging from the “top tier” to those not even ranked by US News & WR. So here’s a question: would you rather be in an online class from a top-tier institution or a F2F class at a 4th-tier regional? +1 for Carmen’s comment above.

    On another topic, dismissing the for-profits because they are motivated “entirely by profit” is as absurd as dismissing all professors, particularly at the elites, because they are motivated entirely by ego. Silly broad brushstrokes.

  5. I don’t agree with the demonization of the for profits. They can teach any subject that a non profit can. The reason their degrees are less valuable is that they don’t reject as many students as a typical university does, other than that the course material may be exactly the same. You can also take online classes at Tier 1s that would normally not accept you and learn valuable information. I like this better, since a lot of the current for profits lack quality, although there’s no reason why this should remain true in the future.

    Depends on whether you’re there for a credential or if you’re there to learn something. You can learn information online but the networking aspects are greatly improved by attending a physical school.

  6. Patrick Pezzelle says:

    Anya, Thanks for expanding my ongoing evaluation of the value of post secondary education. My journey started with the premise that it doesn’t matter what your credentials are(AA,BA,MA, PhD)you have to end up with a JOB. If the knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge are the key factors in fulfilling career goals, does the manner in which the knowledge, skills and abilities were learned really matter? Or, are we stuck in a place where the credential matters more than the knowledge supposedly related to it?

    You properly point out that our basic delivery methods at colleges haven’t changed much in 1,000 years. Students flock to be in the presence of esteemed professors who are the center of all knowledge and that presence somehow leads to learning. By being in a room, we somehow have “social networking”. Proof of the value of education is now the size of your debt when you graduate. What will happen when employers begin to administer comprehensive tests to measure job knowledge, skills and abilities as part of the hiring process?

    My hope is that you began a conversation that will help all of us in post secondary education find ways to close the widening gap between what we do and what students need.

  7. Tyler Clarke says:

    Online education is also good specially if you have very good and talented students.~-*

  8. Isobel Shaw says:

    Online education is also as good as conventional education but interpersonal interaction might be limited.~`*

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