Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Notes From Grad School: Career

Dan Allosso

Okay, yes, I recently renamed my website; 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.”


Jonathan Rees said...


It's not as if anyone expects a guaranteed income for life in this economic environment, but there is no reason that professors should stand pat and watch their comparatively comfortable position erode in the face of non-academic concerns.

Scratch non-academic concerns. Make that anti-academic concerns.

Unknown said...

The big news today seems to be that the US Postal Service is going to close its doors. Probably not -- they've probably just learned that you can't get bailed out without promising immediate armageddon. But even so, USPS has way too many employees, doing the wrong types of jobs relative to the types of mail being sent nowadays. Will the conversation about change reflect the needs of actual postal USERS, or will it be a negotiation between the unions and corporate management?

I'm just not seeing enough interest in the USERS, in all this talk about professors holding the line against "anti-academic" concerns. College students have anti-academic concerns. They want to get the skills and info they need to be functional in society and land a good job. They didn't come to college to support the academy. If professors' "comparatively comfortable position" is at odds with students' needs, then it will (should) disappear.

My question was, how would my value-add justify my paycheck. I think that's a way to focus the discussion on what we're doing for students. But I'm not a professor -- I'm a student.

Dan said...

I will agree 100% (and I think Jonathan will as well) that there's not enough attention being paid to the interests of students in the debate over the role of digital technology and online education in the academy. I'm speaking broadly, but we (educators) don't think of ourselves at odds with the interests of students; we think of ourselves as being at odds with our employers in the administration. In our view, we have the bet interests of students at heart, and since the skills we teach–clear communication and critical analysis–are marketable skills even though they're difficult to quantify, we hope that our instruction will literally pay off down the line. Now, these skills are difficult (maybe impossible) to cultivate in the online format. If our goal were to simply relay bits of discrete information (the "transmission" model of history education), the online classroom or webcast would be just about as good as the lecture hall.

In pushing online education, administrators seem to have the "transmission" model in mind, or at least that's what they're relying on in pushing a format that's really, really good for their bottom line. I don't think any of us can deny that we're anxious about for economic reasons, but we're also concerned that this push for the online university is really a race to the bottom as far as higher education is concerned, with history being taught as rote memorization by faceless faculty earning low wages. To make a free market(ish) argument, if we as a society value education, doesn't it make sense to have a well-paid academic labor force?

Unknown said...

Dan, thanks for the comment. I think you're right, that most history instructors believe they're providing important skills that are going to "pay off" in their students' careers and also in their lives. I also agree with you (and with Jonathan) that the narrow business models some administrations are applying use online as a way to cut costs regardless of the effect on quality education. But I don't think technology is altogether a force for evil, or even the enemy of critical thinking and meaningful engagement between instructors and students.

The professor I'm TAing for this semester has taught the class we're doing for 15 years. Last summer, she taught it in our 5-week online session. She's come out of that experience really excited and energized, and we're going to be incorporating three online discussions in lieu of a paper.

This is cool from the interaction perspective (the students have to post an original response to a reading and then comment on three other posts), but also from that life-skills and career perspective. It will expose students to serious online communication, which they'll learn is less formal than a paper, but more formal than Facebook. They'll have to learn to argue succinctly and politely. I think this is a great idea, and it's only available because Blackboard facilitates it. Yes, it could be done other ways -- but would it be?