Okay, yes, I recently renamed my website history-punk.com; so this is an opinion from outside the mainstream. But I’ve been wondering about the “online education” debate. Part of the problem with some of the discussions I’ve been seeing lately is that they no longer seem to be focused on the students at all, or on learning at all. They lose sight of the fact that the students are the market, and what’s best for the students should drive the discussion. It’s easy enough to acknowledge that this isn’t always the case when administrators choose online as a way of simply cutting costs. But it seems from the complaints of some “technoskeptics,” that the goal is protecting a pedagogical system and an institutional structure that conserves their “right” to full employment at a high wage with good benefits. While we’d all like that, the rest of the economy is already struggling with the hard task of assessing the effects of new technology on the changing roles of workers. Especially in the value-added service sector.
I’d like to refocus the conversation on what works. What helps students learn? What are students’ goals? I think students generally have two sets of goals. One is clustered around learning skills and knowledge that will help them live their lives. The other focuses on career credentials. One of the things that’s becoming more clear to me as I’ve been working on and talking about my writing handbook (which the world can now see parts of on You Tube for free) is that—especially in Gen. Ed. courses—we’re more often teaching life skills like reading, critical thinking, and spoken/written communication than we’re teaching data they’ll need to carry with them always.
An area I haven’t seen addressed by the online-education debaters yet is the ability the web gives students, to see and hear the very best teachers talking about material they have intimate knowledge of iTunes U and TED are a couple of examples of media that push videos of very high-octane lectures out to a mass audience. I’m very excited about the opportunity to watch Richard Feynman’s physics lectures, or to see James McPherson talk about the Civil War, and I think the fact that everybody suddenly has access to incredible quantities of very high quality teaching material, for free, changes the game. These people were once only available to rich kids at elite schools. Now they’re out there for everybody.
I’ve gotta believe 100-level, Gen. Ed. courses are by far the most prevalent in terms of both student participation and instructor employment (all the more-so if we count adjuncts and grad students). So if these are really the majority of the courses, the question is: how does the presence of an instructor in the classroom play against the opportunity for a student to see the person who defined the field talking about their original research and insights they’ve gained over a lifetime of devoted study?
Yes, of course instructors in the classroom do other things that a video lecture from Stanford is not going to be able to do. But now we’re talking about tasks. The iconic role of the professor has been deconstructed. Of course, professors at universities that employ TAs to run discussions and grade papers had already begun this deconstruction themselves. What does a guy like me offer to students that they couldn’t get from iTunes U? That’s the question that should be shaping our career development. And I don’t think the answer is “accreditation.”