Environmentalist ideology in the guise of sustainability is everywhere. It is pap. The words sustainability, conservation and conservatism are linked. They suggest protection of the status quo. Until the Progressive era Americans were not concerned with conservation because they assumed that progress would make life better. Sustaining the status quo paled beside a glowing manifest destiny. Perhaps today's progressive interest in sustainability is an admission that the left is not progressive but conservative.
Four articles this week give a window into the debates over online education. Two NAS professors who have taught online courses - and care about rigorous liberal education - wrote at NAS.org. David Clemens argues that online education's proper role is as a home for orphaned liberal arts and "boutique" courses for motivated students. In his view, online education is less than ideal, but as more and more institutions cut liberal arts programs, he seeks to "expose students to classic texts about perennial questions" by any means possible. Jason Fertig advocates the hybrid classroom model, and submits that a combination of online and in-class instruction can help restore academic rigor in college courses. "Why make this issue an all or nothing proposition?" he asks. Then, in his latest Chronicle blog post, Peter Wood forecasts that online education, either rigorous or at "the level of a video game," will become a standard feature of American college instruction. A longer article in the Chronicle by Mark David Milliron urges academics to put away tired arguments for and against online education. "We need to end the family feud over learning strategies," he writes. "Particularly for low-income students, the journey to and through our institutions is the pathway to possibility. We owe it to them to steer our conversations about online learning away from the tired 'use it versus don't use it' arguments."
NAS published articles on both sides of the debate over the future of reading. One held up the merits of traditional books and asserted that we have much to lose as human beings if we abandon the printed word, and the other defended the Kindle as a helpful option for the modern reader. "Inflammatory Books on Kindle? Reigniting the Written Word,” by David Clemens, argues that, "When the book becomes disembodied, so does the reader." Jason Fertig counters in "A Kindled Spirit" that "there is no need to fear the Kindle and its electronic cousins, for they are on our side [the side in favor of reading books]." We hope to have more pro/con pairs like this in the future.
As the creator of SimCity, The Sims, SimEarth, The Sims online, and Spore, Will Wright is a computer gaming “god.” In his GameTech 2010 keynote address, Wright offers provocative observations about games and education. He argues that learning begins with collecting data, then studying the data for patterns, using discerned patterns to develop schemas (abstractions) which allow us to create mental models, and finally base our behavior on those models that we hope will be predictive. So gamers learn to master a game which unfolds in “nested feedback loops” of increasing duration. Gamers succeed by learning what works only through suffering serial failure, the same way an apprentice learns from failing at what the journeyman does well. But classroom education, Wright says, causes students to avoid failure by teaching them as many rules as possible. Theory, too, he says, insulates you from failure. Worse, theory often results in schemas that are not derived from the experiential world (which explains why businessmen run countries better than professors). From online play data, Wright discovered that The Sims players actually enjoy exploring failure states because by hitting walls and discovering limits, they can build a model of the game’s “possibility space.” Life, Wright warns us, allows limited opportunities to build reality-based behavioral models, but we can take advantage of two “educational technologies” to increase our store of experience: toys (play) and stories (the experience of others). He calls his games “toys” because they don’t involve winning and losing; Spore, for example, teaches basic biological principles through play. One can't help wondering if Basic Skills education might be redesigned so as to produce learning through play, failure, and nested feedback cycles.
In today's Pope Center piece, Jane Shaw writes about a favorable development at one of the UNC-system schools, Fayetteville State, which has adopted a policy of requiring professors to post their syllabi online. That's an idea the Pope Center has been advocating for some time. It's not uncommon for students to sign up for a course, only to later find out that the course title doesn't match up very well with what the prof intends to cover. Perhaps this policy will reduce the tendency among professors to use what should be a broad course to cover whatever their current research interests happen to be, educational malpractice that serves students poorly.
In 2009, I blogged on the budding movement for open-source and commercially free textbooks coming on the market. The latter vendors often hope to make money by charging for the printing of online texts. The movement has moved ahead sluggishly with little financial support. Enter two tech billionaires: the founders of Sun Microsystems--Scott McNealy and Vinod Khosia. They are devoting their philanthropy to replacing the $200 textbook with free alternatives AND getting these texts accredited by California and Texas, the two "gatekeepers" of the textbook publishing market (K-12). Look for rapid movement at the K-12 level and some progress in the college textbook market. Whether the textbook oligopoly can block competition with political influence is another matter. For more, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/technology/01ping.html?src=busln and http://www.curriki.org/xwiki/bin/view/Main/WebHome
The Regents of the University of California just voted to embrace a pilot program testing the efficacy of an online undergraduate degree. Until now, like most research universities, UC has been leery of the online environment because of the thorny problems it poses: questionable security, dubious academic integrity, loss of “voices around the table,” substantial and perpetual costs. Conversely, online education does seem inevitable given our technological dependence, a Beltway “college-for-all” mindset, corporate customer service business models, and ruthless competition. "It's the future," gushed Regent Bonnie Reiss. Despite teaching online for years and running an online program, I remain ambivalent about the marriage of technology and education. Showing INXS’s “Devil Inside” to spice up “Young Goodman Brown” used to be stimulating; now it’s just disruptive. Why jerk students back to the terrain they already inhabit, filled with insistent, continuous, cognitive shifts whose interruptions prevent learning? Handling electronic information, Nicholas Carr says,
We become mere signal processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.
As one online student just posted, “During the time it took me to read for this assignment, I received 1 phone call, 6 emails, 4 text messages and 1 Skype message.” At the Young Rhetoricians’ Conference in June, the most instructive point about online education was made by Porsche, a young African-American college student, who said, “I don’t want to study organic chemistry on my computer. My computer is where I go to have fun.” The UC Regents would do well to heed her words because Porsche really is the future.
The trustees of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), reports the Jerusalem Post, have unanimously voted against severing ties with Israeli universities, and no one rose to argue in favor of the corrosive proposal. Good sense and respect for openness to diverse views prevailed. Had the outcome of this vote been different, a dangerous precedent would have been set for all academe. Kudos to the trustees.
Over on Phi Beta Cons, Fred Schwartz ("20 Reasons Why Campus Learning Is Better Than Online") cites my predictions about a “Great Transition” in which higher education will move from in-person campus-based institutions to mostly online instruction in the coming decades. He dislikes the prospect and disagrees with how likely it is. I don’t especially like the prospect either, but that’s neither here nor there. The important question is whether something like the “Great Transition” could happen. My answer is yes, it could. That’s because, though our current institutional basis of higher education looks robust, it is highly vulnerable to small shifts in public esteem. My article, The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come, wore its satirical colors openly. I described people, places, and events twenty years into the future and attributed my detailed foresight to scientifically-enhanced precognition. It says something about the level of fear that online education strikes in today’s academics that a fair number wrote to me to protest this leap of imagination, as if, like Prospero, I could conjure it out of thin air. Don’t blame me. If something like the Great Transition were to happen, it won’t be because I set it in motion. Nor do I think that my fellow seer, Jane Shaw, can be blamed. Fred Schwartz provides 20 reasons why campus learning is (or “can be”) better than online college education. Most of his reasons sound right to me. He starts out, “Not every subject lends itself to online learning.” Entirely true, at least with current technology. Looking at the last twenty years, I wouldn’t exactly rule out the possibility of dramatic improvements in the years ahead, but the more important point is that the subjects Fred cites as better learnt in person—“those that require laboratory work, clinical practice, studio learning, musical instruction, live performance, agricultural work, etc.”— do not require a university. Historically, each of them was taught in a non-university setting. Music conservatories and independent art schools still thrive. Science grew up outside the university and has a vigorous life in independent institutes to this day. Moreover, the decoupling of undergraduate education from more advanced studies already has models such as the Rockefeller University. I won’t go through all twenty of Fred’s reasons, but most of them fall into this pattern. He makes a valid point about the attraction of or benefit to be had from residential colleges, but the point has no real bearing on the larger economic and social forces at work. Yes, it is nice to retire to a college town (point 3), but are we going to keep colleges going in order to provide enhanced retirement options? It seems unlikely. At the end of his post Fred allows that “most of these problems are surmountable,” but sees no positive reason why American society would want to surmount them. In his view, “the college campus is not an expensive anachronism.” I wish that were true, and, even if it isn’t, I wish Americans would continue to believe it true. But as my article suggested, it is a fragile hope. For some fifty years, Americans have had drilled into them that higher education is mainly about getting the credentials to get a well-paying job. If a technology comes along that offers much the same thing at a fraction of the cost, many people will choose that option (there’s “our friend the free market” for you). Online education is that technology, and it is late in the game for higher education to turn around and say, “Residential education is worth a premium price because college, after all, is really about the intangible aspects of shared culture, access to civilization, moral elevation, personal associations, and the richness of life.” I think such claims happen to be true, but I don’t expect them to outweigh career ambition for the great majority of students or their parents. To the contrary, the American public has drunk in the utilitarian calculus that college is a launching pad for lucrative careers. And that public has also grown canny about the undergraduate degree becoming a merely intermediary step on the path to the credentials that really count. To this we have to add the widespread recognition that in-person higher education is an enormously expensive and vainglorious enterprise that frequently produces meager results. This adds up to vulnerability. Fred believes the risk is an illusion. He cites (point #10) earlier claims that “printing, the telephone, sound recording, radio, movies, television, and various generations of computers,” would “revolutionize education and make all our schools and universities obsolete!” That’s a pretty misleading “and.” Most would say that printing, at least, did revolutionize higher education. The other technologies on the list have had considerable consequences for higher education too. It might be useful to think of online education as the synthesis of all of them, perhaps as the gasoline-powered automobile combined and synthesized a host of technologies that had already been invented, and spurred the invention of still more. We can visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania for reassurance that automotive technology did not render horse-powered agriculture and transportation “obsolete,” but the equine economy isn’t what it once was. I repeat, I am not eager for the rise of an online dominated form of higher education. The cultural losses would include some that matter to me profoundly. But I have yet to see a solid argument why the Great Transition won’t happen. “I’d regret it” isn’t an argument.
NAS welcomes a new web-based effort to reform higher education, CampusReform.org:
Historically, conservatives have favored the ways of the past—which is why they sometimes fall behind the left in using technology to get organized. But Campus Reform breaks out of the mold to help give this generation’s conservatives a forward-thinking cause. NAS, "Campus Reform Looks Forward"