Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Celebration at the Education Factory

From today’s paper comes the story of a 32 year old woman who “decided to pursue her dream of becoming a marriage and family counselor by earning a bachelor's degree in psychology. She did it entirely online, because her home is too far to commute to [campus]. Monday's graduation ceremony was only her second visit to campus. For the past four years, she has held down a full-time job, doing most of her studying nights and weekends.”

I find it troubling that a marriage and family counselor would be able to earn a degree certifying her competency to help human beings deal with some of their most difficult and intimate life issues through a program which did not require her to ever have to engage another human being directly. I would guess that the department helped the student arrange for some kind of practical applications of the information she was able to access online in the form of internships or observations where she lived. And I would guess that truncated “discussions” online were used to replace classroom discussions with real live human beings whose body language and vocal inflections are needed to fully communicate words that otherwise appear as mere letters on a screen in the online format.

But who are these people whose words simply appear on our screens? Who are the instructors? What do they look like? What background do they bring to this process? What makes them laugh? What causes them concern? How much can anyone ever know about another human being in the first place and how much less once one is relieved of the obligation of ever actually physically encountering them? And how can such a limited engagement of other human beings provide an adequate means of counseling them?

What is telling in this description is the priority that education held in this woman’s life. She said she couldn’t attend classes on campus because it was “too far.” While a regular two hour commute to the university through city traffic would probably not have been feasible, there is a fine state university a mere 45 minutes by interstate north of the city where the student lives with an excellent psychology program and ample parking garages. No doubt, it provides part of its curriculum online as well. But the proximity of the campus would allow for class attendance as well. Clearly, distance was not the issue.

Perhaps more telling is the revelation about school and work. This is a woman who worked full-time and took full-time course loads. If we assume that online courses replicate classroom experience and that for every hour of class one should spend an average of two hours outside class to prepare, that would mean that this woman was spending 36 hours per week in class-related work in addition to a 40 hour work week. Clearly, that can be done, particularly for the short haul, but the idea that this pattern could become the norm raises no small amount of concerns for higher education.

First, the approach to online courses is, by the self-description of at least one university’s course development staff, a “delivery of services.” It sees the educational process in consumerist terms – the provision of goods and services to consumers willing to buy them. Lost in that understanding is any notion that human beings are involved, that educational institutions represent an opportunity to develop oneself into an educated – and thus more fully human - being and that this is the ultimate end for a university education. College degrees in consumerist terms are reduced to working papers (a truncated vision of life which reduces the “real world” to business) and the means of a rather shallow self-affirmation for the nervous middle class with its fear of falling.

Also lost is the notion that education is a process that requires engagement. Online courses, in my experience of four years now as instructor, easily lend themselves to reductionism and minimization. While online courses were originally designed to be “distance learning,” an evolution out of independent studies conducted by correspondence for students with special circumstances in years gone by, they have long since come to be used for much more immediate and much less noble concerns.

For universities which admit more students than they can house in classrooms, it’s a means of dealing with managerial imperatives. By cutting the cost of cooling, lighting and cleaning classrooms and through the inexorable trend toward farming out online classes to adjuncts who don’t have to be paid benefits as a condition of their employment, colleges are able to reduce their costs and continue to enroll more students than they have infrastructure to handle, at least until the online web services crash because they have been stretched beyond their capacities.

What results is a slippery slope for student engagement. Many of my online section students have admitted that they enroll in online classes because these sections do not require them to actually have to show up in person in class. No need for preparation of materials, no need to have anything intelligent to say, no worries that one might be too hung over to leave one’s frat house or dorm room.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that this logic is quickly extended to content. If there are no demands to attend class and participate, there must be no real demands in terms of what the course will require. Besides, it’s online, the computer does much of the work for you - which is precisely why many students end up crashing and burning in online classes, the exception of our heroine of the day duly noted.

Online classes also have a major impact on instructors. They represent the perfect storm of management, whose primary concern is to spend as little money as is necessary, and computer programmers and technicians whose primary concern is the quickest way to get things done, regardless of their impact on human users (who almost inevitably get blamed for technological failures). The results are programs which are rarely self-evident (read: “user friendly”) to non-computer technician users.

This requires increasing amounts of instructor time in dealing with technical problems, time stolen from development of content or grading and communicating with students. Instructors become the bureaucratic middle man between the nameless and faceless “they” who create and maintain course technology and the consumer students who complain when the programs dump them off in the middle of quizzes, don’t allow them to upload their various word processing programs or prevent images from showing up in their presentations.

Of course, all this works in the favor of minimization, or “dumbing down” as a friend at another local college describes it. At my own training for online teaching, held in a two week summer course which required instructors attend in person (obviously NOT modeling the very behaviors online courses foster), the mantra of the week was the 12 Steps favorite KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid! Of course, in almost every invocation of that mantra in our culture today, the word “I’m” should probably be inserted between Simple and Stupid. But, at a very basic level, keeping it simple in online classes is increasingly not just an option.

If one is expected to handle the ongoing deluge of problems with technology, particularly when trying to incorporate art or music files into class materials (and what humanities class wouldn’t?), and answer the flood of student emails complaining of the same, the less one has to keep track of and maintain, the better. Indeed, after four years of teaching online, I have concluded that truncating course materials – and thus course requirements - to the point of being simplistic may be the only real means of surviving online instruction, particularly if one has a full-time teaching load.

Where does this trajectory point? I see an increasing use of online courses which demand less and less from students in a collegiate factory assembly line which will provide them with a certificate at the end of that process (providing they’ve paid all their fees and fines) that says they are now sufficiently trained to go get a job in the “real world.” Less engagement with other human beings. Less demands on students to think, write, discuss. More instructional time spent playing technical tinker toys and serving as a 24 hour on-call help desk than in pedagogical preparation. All of the credit, none of the demands. College lite.

Today, we raise our glasses to higher education’s version of the first test-tube baby, a college diploma achieved entirely in the artificial gravity of cyberspace. We toast the triumph of consumerism and the minimization of higher education and the trivialization of our humanity that it fosters. We celebrate the triumph of managerial and technocratic imperatives over the needs of a democratic society for an educated citizenry.

Finally we note with no small amount of irony that the student of the hour who found the distance too far to drive to campus to actually attend classes did find a way to get there yesterday to participate in commencement, receive her diploma in person from another human being and claim her 15 minutes of fame in her interview with the newspaper reporter. Apparently the download function for attachments to her email wasn't working.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes

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