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Bill Tierney

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Online Learning and the Faculty’s Response

A few months ago Inside Higher Ed had a laugh out-loud article about online learning. Here’s how it started:

Cary Nelson, the outgoing president of the American Association of University Professors, said that online models such as Coursera—an online entity offering free courses from Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania—can be terrific for delivering educational materials to retirement homes, “where folks are unlikely to assume any social responsibilities for the ‘knowledge’ they have acquired.”

Okay, so Cary Nelson, no spring chicken himself, begins by dissing old-timers. Those old geezers, he’s saying, are so out to pasture that they can’t really decipher what they’re receiving. Aside from the unnecessary putdown of senior citizens (many of whom are in the AAUP), he then goes on to say:

 “But it’s not education, and it’s not even a reliable means for credentialing people,” Nelson said. Education calls for real interaction with faculty members and a consensus through which faculty members can design, manage, and evaluate degree programs, he said. “It’s fine to put lectures online, but this plan only degrades degree programs if it plans to substitute for them.”

Has he been in any lecture classes recently? Is he really saying that the general education classes that our students take in freshman year provide “real interaction” and that the faculty “evaluate” those degrees. I mean, c’mon old guy Cary. Get off your duff and toddle over to the lecture hall. I’m sure there are superb lectures and lecturers here and there, but to put down online learning because of the presumed superiority of lectures by TAs and adjunct faculty (not because the mean administration is hiring more administrators, but because we don’t want to teach those lectures) seems silly.

But it gets better.

Martin Snyder, senior associate general secretary at the AAUP, said the organization has principles in place asserting that faculty must have control over the constitution of the curriculum and the delivery, structure and assessment of a course. “If this kind of a system takes off, you might have a situation where the very wealthy students go to a campus to interact with real professors, while the rest of the world takes online courses … what appears to be a democratization process might be more aristocratic than democratic.”

Emphasis on “might.” It is entirely possible. Use of “might” in this manner precludes any activity: “It might rain today; I had best not take a walk. It might rain tonight; I had best not go outside.” Jeesh. But we could turn the sentence around and find reasons to do all sorts of things.

I wonder if “might” is a good enough reason for not doing something at a time when students can’t get the courses they need. And by the way, those richy-rich kids who go to a campus to interact with “real” professors also want online learning. Students want learning speeded up, and if they can take a course or two with me and take an online class at the same time, they will.

The article continues:

Faculty groups should be concerned with curriculum control, said Mark Smith, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association. “I think it is important to look at quality; this mode of education might be more effective for more advanced students and less so for introductory students,” he said. “Of course, we need a larger public discussion on the importance of public higher education.” Smith said students who venture into higher education through these online courses may be lost to the educational system forever if they try the courses and are unsuccessful.

I agree it’s important to look at quality, but can anyone make the comments that Smith does with a straight face? Again, with the “might.” It’s true that “this mode of education” “might” be better for one group or another, but we don’t know. It’s also true those students who venture into these courses “might” be lost to the educational system forever. The good news is, by inference, that we don’t lose anyone in the traditional system, that the lecture is equally fantastic for all students, and we are constantly looking at academic quality.

My concern with these sorts of statements is that they suggest we shouldn’t experiment with a new method because it’s unproven. The result is that we should stick with the tried and true because it is proven. Aside from the enormous capacity problems we face, such an assumption just doesn’t hold up. A lot of our traditional courses fail to meet the high standards we should have for them. The point is surely not to look at online learning as an educational New Jerusalem. But to say “no, no, no” seems equally foolhardy.

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