Document Type

Article

Publication Date

5-2013

Abstract

Message from President: Words are less the antonym than the diluted form of action. Nowhere do we see more action in the form of words than in the swirl of seeming inaction surrounding online education. Pundit-educators talk relentlessly about the tsunami of online offerings to come. Knowing the American love of things apocalyptic, they predict the inevitable closure of huge numbers of institutions. Yet, to date, no college or university seems to have shut down owing to online competition. Shares in companies holding online providers seem to fall; only near-bankrupt institutions such as Arizona State University seem to offer more than a handful of online curricula. Many institutions, such as Southern University, hope to cash in on online derivatives: they use an initial online exposure to draw students back into the traditional classroom. In a state and indeed a nation where a good many advanced education technologies—instructional television; videotape; satellite; old-fashioned correspondence school—have already flopped, wise educators will want to look before leaping: to consider some of the contradictions in the thinking about online education and to reflect on some of its ideological underpinnings. A university, after all, does more than deliver information. It delivers an educated life that, one would hope, is richer than that provided by a cubicle, a chair, a socket, and a screen. University folk are also good counters. They can look at the census data and realize that the Malthusian fantasy of 3,000 degree-granting institutions all teaching tens of thousands of online learners may not fit “the numbers.” The semi-delirious drive to consolidation and mass markets as practiced by educational combines such as edX shows that online education is only a thinly disguised version of the privatization of universities. Privatization tends to de-educate the public by reducing the likelihood of public scrutiny. Although lauded by neo-conservatives for its reliance on user fees, online education transfers the costs of education to individual students rather than drawing that support from society as a whole. It thereby diminishes the sense of membership in a culture of participation in a common purpose. And it thereby imposes a highly selective tax on those least-educated persons who are often the least able to pay. Online education condenses an overlooked form of generational strife in which older persons who profited from the free education of the boom years refuse to provide the same opportunity to their successors. Cloaked in the noble robes of democracy and equality—in the suggestion that thousands or millions will be empowered—online education introduces the not-sonew, neo-Puritan notion that youngsters should work and pay for the education that their parents received for free, as a consequence of a long postwar economic bubble. Presumably the university is a place where people not only think but debate. Disagreement remains somewhat incongruous with the highly packaged, programmed-learning environment of online education. The linkage of online education with workforce development suggests its association with training rather than educating. The antithesis of what used to be called the “slow-food revolution,” online education emulates the fast-food mentality, with many of its customers coming to believe that “everything is online” and readily available when, in fact, only a fraction of the world’s knowledge has reached digital form. On the positive side, the emergence of MOOCs (massively open online courses) has blown apart the unproved theory, embraced by accrediting agencies and rating services, that small classes are better than largeaudience instructional formats. That audience must be big, if only because online education, with its emphasis on basic skills, represents the attempt of public universities to cash in, in a big way, on the shortcoming of K–12 education (and thereby run up the cost of all education by moving kindergarten into the high-ticket college environment). Professors should also start speaking out against the working conditions for online educators. We have not yet seen the claims for industrial injuries owing to a work life built around typing, screen-viewing, and sitting, but those claims will surely come. Although many if not most online courses are nominally taught by a professor at full wage, the sections of successful courses are operated by an undefined and largely unmonitored mass of adjunct, itinerant, and, worst, retired faculty, the latter of whom should think about the morality of driving down wages for younger faculty while collecting retirement benefits. Whether the celebrity cult that converts a few professors into online superstars promotes collegial research or merely preening remains to be seen. Similarly, where research fits into online education remains a semitaboo topic. If anything good comes out of the overly touted “online revolution,” it might well be the disassociation of research from teaching: the resurgence of the researcher or intellectual in residence who is not required to justify his or her groundbreaking work by teaching inadequately educated teenagers what they should have learned in elementary school.

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