In the recent book by Clay Christensen and Henry Eyring, The Innovative University, the authors contend that many colleges and universities will be left in the dust unless they figure out how to adapt, much as companies have crumbled when innovative technologies hit their markets and they couldn't rapidly adjust to it.
At a recent Liberty Fund Socratic Seminar on “Education and Liberty in the Digital Age,” the conferees considered whether the Internet cum computer constitute “disruptive technology” that will subvert and fundamentally change today’s crumbling educational monolith. We paid particular attention to online education, innovative for-profit programs, and the educational potential of videos on YouTube.
In “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a gargantuan Library in which are shelved books that together exhaust all possible combinations of letters. Obviously, “[f]or every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” One book simply repeats the letters “MCV” over and over and over while another is gibberish except for the line “O Time thy pyramids.” But since the books exhaust all possible verbal representations, on some shelf in the “unimaginably vast” Library sits your own correct biography, including your death. Unfortunately, the “perhaps infinite” Library also contains a nearly infinite number of slightly or grossly corrupt biographies, and you could never know the difference even should you be so fantastically lucky to find one, a probability that “can be calculated to be zero.” Blogging this past year, I’ve come to feel like one of Borges’ los hombres de la Biblioteca. When I post something on a site that allows them, I receive comments, but often on some other composition, no longer what I had written but slightly or grossly false having been filtered through the hermeneutic apparatus of the commenter. As I read them, like Prufrock, I sigh,
That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.
A word or phrase is plucked from my essay and with it a commenter embroiders a fabulous if irrelevant tapestry. Or a commenter assumes I have implied something veiled that he alone can perceive. Or a commenter misreads (overlooking “a single letter” sends some readers into a parallel universe). Once there, the commenter soapboxes, snarks, pontificates, rants, or vogues, using the post as an occasion for remixing my words into something uncannily familiar but unquestionably or bizarrely different. It was Karl Popper who said ". . . it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood . . . .”
When RCA’s mascot dog Nipper heard “his master’s voice” from the trumpet of an Edison-Bell gramophone, he cocked his head in a bemused “huh?” And I hear you, my misreaders, though I sometimes tilt my head like Nipper and wonder, “How did you get that?” and “Where did I say that?” and “What are you talking about?” As Borges’ narrating hombre asks, “You who read me—are you certain you understand my language?” Blog commenters never doubt that they understand the blogger’s language (even better than the blogger). Blog posts and comment threads seem to me like volumes added to what will become a Library of Babel. The signal-to-noise ratio changes constantly and noise is winning. Today, the Internet frequently seems best at producing and disseminating misinformation (which becomes permanent and searchable). Borges’ notes that “infidels” believe the Library of Babel (like entropy or the Internet) may really be a monstrous temple of dreck since its endless collections "affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad, hallucinating deity.”
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."
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.
In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney's character works for a company that sends him around the country to fire people. To save the company money on airfare, hotels, and rental cars, Clooney's female colleague, a young Cornell grad, suggests that they switch to firing people through videoconferencing on laptops. The method seems to work, but the viewer feels instinctively that this is even more demeaning than getting fired by a third party company. There's something so impersonal and distant about talking to a screen. Later in the movie, the girl (Cornell grad) gets dumped by her boyfriend via text message, and once again, we see the medium itself as adding to her humiliation. We've always had the sense that with any communication short of face-to-face conversation, there's something vital missing. That's been the abiding concern during the rise of online education. But an article in today's Inside Higher Ed declares that online education will lose none of the elements that make traditional education what it is:
As we look to the future of liberal education, we seem unlikely to change the fundamentals of what has made that model successful. We will enhance the curriculum with interactive smart classrooms, course and lecture capture, ubiquitous wireless connecting smaller and more capable digital devices, and other technologies not yet invented, but close faculty-student and student-student interaction will remain the core. What seems more likely to change – and to offer transformative possibilities – is the medium.
But isn't the medium the message? The author maintains, however, that "there is every reason to believe that whatever 'liberal education' is, 'it' can travel over a network." He offers some compelling reasons.
According to this survey from the National Association of College Stores, students prefer traditional print textbooks by a significant majority, and would not buy digitalized versions even if they were readily available and inexpensive. I'm not sure exactly what this signifies in the larger scheme of things, since students increasingly are deficient in reading proficiency irrespective of the particular medium involved. I can't help gloating just a bit though, since I've been so regularly assured that "technology" is the unstoppable wave of the future, and that I'd better get used to the fact that traditional textbooks are already obsolete. Full disclosure: I'm a skeptic about "technology." I haven't rejected the use of my computer, but I think enthusiasm tends to run way ahead of evidence where things such as online courses are concerned. I don't doubt that many in higher education, especially administrators fervently wish for that eventuality, and maybe it will come to pass. For me, however, that's a separate question from whether it will be able to deliver pedagogical dividends. Now if I see evidence that students begin to take to digitalized texts and their reading habits are likely to improve, I won't stand athwart the March of Progress. But for the moment, they're not interested in buying, much less reading the new gadgets.
I run a Great Books Program that offers courses online so that students anywhere can earn a certificate. Recently I heard Gareth Williams, Chair of Columbia’s famous Lit-Hum core and emailed him for his thoughts on teaching great books online. He was, not surprisingly, dubious:
As for Core courses online, I myself would be sceptical about the feasibility of such a step, at least from a Columbia perspective: so much here depends on the seminar format of voices heard around the table, and I feel that that format would be very hard indeed to reproduce in anything like its 'real-life' vitality if we tried it online.
I confess to similar doubts, admit that synchronous live dialogue is not reproducible, and acknowledge that the online courses are a marketing tool. Still, in 2010, perhaps discussion takes a back seat to getting students exposed to challenging texts at all. I started my program basically to keep frequently-cancelled literature courses alive in my institution (administrative pluses: lower cost and a draw for disenfranchised literature students across the country). Yet Professor Williams’s reply started me thinking about other virtues of online courses (I have taken at least a dozen and taught even more). My defense of the online mode was bolstered by an experience of “voices around the table” while reporting to an informal group of students about the Association for Core Texts and Courses Conference where I heard Dr. Williams. I could hardly get a word in edgewise with all the interruptions and crosstalk. Everyone wanted to speak at once; everyone had an opinion; no one had a question; no one cared to listen. I finally gave up. Neil Postman preached that
for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.
For now, the cost of electronically embracing what Victor Davis Hanson calls the “vanquished civilization of readers” may be the loss of “voices around the table.” The advantage of online discussions, however, is the opportunity to complete one’s thought. Students can also take time to frame their words, reflect rather than react, revise, expand, cross reference, corroborate, and fact-check. My online classes often turn into one-on-one tutorials, epistolary, more time-consuming than the classroom but with a balance of distance and intimacy. The shy can “speak” as loudly as the bold. Discipline is limited to enforcing the flaming policy. No one is watching the clock or tweeting, and students are no longer packed in a box (by the end of the day, my 1940s era classroom is redolent of a high school locker room). Martin Pawley used to argue that all technology acts as insulation against human contact. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing.
By Adrienne Carlson It may come as a surprise to you, especially if you’ve always believed that online education is inferior to the traditional kind – there are certain careers where an online degree is your best chance of success. You may have heard that employers look down on online degrees, but not if you’re interested in a career in the following fields:
This guest article was written by Adrienne Carlson, who regularly writes on the topic of accelerated online degrees. Adrienne welcomes your comments and questions at her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many who argue for a return to a more traditional, rigorous curriculum are also critical of online education. In this blog, I make the case that online education can help scholars reach nontraditional audiences, a cliche to be sure, but one that rings true with my personal experience after 15 years of delivering "distance learning" in addition to my "brick-and-mortar" courses. First, it is no accident that online courses aren't full of the trendy postmodern nonsense that dominates campus offerings. Nonsense flourishes where it is not transparent to the larger world. Online education operates by making itself transparent and open to that larger community. Second, many institutions face stiff financial challenges. While I work at a state university, the online education division is entirely self-financed: not a single taxpayer dime, all revenue comes from tuition of students who sign up for courses. It is no accident that this division is the most entrepreneurial of all our divisions, and most no-nonsense with its offerings (Foucault 101 wouldn't "sell" to our students in the military, single parents working during the day, high school teachers expanding their content knowledge, etc.). Online education can be done badly. There is a possible "race to the bottom" in terms of quality but, as the work of the NAS amply demonstrates, this is also a problem on campus. If anything, the market reality provides a test of what people--not tenured radicals--want from a college education. As an advocate for online education at my university, I submitted the following presentation to my college of liberal arts. For those unsure about online education, I also recommend an excellent 20-minute video presentation that I have posted online (with the permission of the professor).
Second Life, a virtual "world" resembling a video game, enables people to interact with one another via avatars - digitized, animated versions of themselves. The creepy, sexual, Second Life universe is inhabited by businesses, churches, embassies, pornographic movie theaters, and colleges. This week the Chronicle of Higher Education announced that Pennsylvania State University will now require its academic advisers to set up Second Life accounts and be available to meet with students in the virtual world. Here is PSU's webpage on the university's Second Life presence. According to a Penn State official, "We're using Second Life as a way for online students who never visit campus to feel more connected to the university and their experience, and have a way of interacting with their fellow students and other staff members as well." These online students can talk via a tight-clothed avatar to someone like Shawna Culp - known on Second Life as Shawna Charisma - on the two-dimensional Penn State "island" that cost the university several hundred dollars to purchase. I look at this and say, whatever happened to phone conversations? I suppose it's naturally in the trajectory mapped out by the online education rocket. But don't we begin to sound silly when human interaction is reduced to this?
As an instructor of online history courses, I have many students overseas (Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia). The Internet connects them to me (and to the rest of us). The stories I could relate are fascinating and make teaching online courses all the more rewarding. Moreover, as an instructor I know that I'm helping those who are "American, Interrupted" Even more important, soldiers of all ranks have blogged their way into history, thus writing what we used to say of newspapers: "the first pages" of history. Read the following from the above "American, Interrupted" blog:
"I look up at the now familiar Arabian night sky and gaze at the stars, my close friends over this past year. Those same stars will ever hang in the sky and endure – like our love. Under those same points of light we’ll lay not too long from now, and those stars will smile just for us, because they know how long we’ve wished upon them to be together again. I love you, I’m so thankful for you, and I can’t wait to spend forever with you. Sometimes I wondered if we were not unintentionally promoting anarchy because of this war on terror. I mean, we were encouraging and supporting rebellious elements of the population in their struggle against Saddam Hussein – thinking their struggle was one to free themselves of his rule. Sometimes I wondered if the struggle was to free themselves of all rules so they could establish a Shia theocracy. That would explain why Americans were in the crosshairs of Shia rebels. Many of them comprised the poorest and worst educated parts of Iraq, but it was these very people who we were making the masters of Iraq in the period of a year. This belief in empowering the weak and oppressed is noble, but it has to be done carefully. Sometimes it seemed the transfer of power bordered on a form of Bolshevism."
[To read the whole story (crossposted) click here ] PS: Imagine if college campuses allowed this kind of free speech. We wouldn't need NAS, FIRE, or the few intrepid ACLU chapters interested in academic freedom. More free speech in the military than in higher ed? Read the rest of the story to decide (and check out the Milblogging directory).
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.