Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Is Higher Education Providing?

Canna lilies, next to a parking lot on campus

I've recently noticed a number of people (see citations at the end) suggesting that higher education needs to relocate online in a way similar to what the commercial world has done. Online classes are supposedly cheaper, faster, and more flexible than traditional in-person classes, and they can be offered to more people than those in a narrow geographical location. I have a lot of thoughts about this (including on the topic of hybrid courses, which have the potential to blend the best of both worlds), but today I'll expand on just one:

All this largely ignores what the purpose of a college degree is. To many students, a degree now presents itself as merely a barrier toward a job. That many American institutions have neglected to correct this misconception may be to everyone's disadvantage.

I want to believe that everyone can and should go to college, but my thinking is currently being influenced by Charles Murray, who in his book Real Education makes a compelling case that the opposite is true. Perhaps some individuals will never be fluent in calculus, or be able to write a clear essay. Perhaps institutions that make it seem as though these things are attainable to everyone are setting students up for disappointments when instead they could be playing to their strengths.

On a related note is the false perception that education is transactional. Teaching and learning are not so simple. If a student pays money to take a reading class, and at the end of the class still cannot read, it is usually not due to the failure of the college or teacher. A college that promises an easy path to academic success for all students is lying, or at least being unrealistic.

Finally, there is the point that instructors make a difference. This is an inconvenient truth for administrators. You cannot easily duplicate a good instructor (see What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain for a close examination of this topic). Students can succeed in spite of poor teachers, but the best teachers understand that what they do can make a serious difference in a student's motivation, self-worth, confidence, capacity, etc. (According to the fascinating article "The Rubber Room" by Steven Brill in the New Yorker, "most serious studies on education reform have concluded that the critical variable when it comes to kids succeeding in school isn’t money spent on buildings or books but, rather, the quality of their teachers.") This is why in education, the cheapest option might not be the best, despite whatever magic the internet brings.

The question then becomes this: What are institutions of higher education providing? If they are providing a degree, expectations can be fairly low, and degree acquisition rates can be high. If the goal, however, is to provide meaningful, useful, interesting, enlightening experiences that create well-informed, mature, wise adults who are equipped to handle a sophisticated world, then the online degree-farm model fails. A degree is supposed to be an indicator of an education, not the purpose of it.

College for $99 a Month by Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly
Welcome to Yahoo U! by Zephyr Teachout in Slate's The Big Money
book chapter:
"Public Institutions. Google U: opening education" in What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis


  1. My personal belief is that academic success is largely a function of student engagement. A student who's interested in what he's doing will almost always do better than a student who's not. Pure online courses tend to discourage engagement, mostly because the instructor is not there in real-time to interact with the students. I'm all for using technology to enhance courses, but if you take away everyone being there at the same time, it really detracts. I'd love to try a "synchronous" online course--through videoconferencing or something--but it seems like no one's interested in that.

  2. As a student currently attending a university that does offer the majority of courses both online and in-person, I have to say I am thoroughly disappointed and unmotivated to continue with this course. Trying to provide for online members just means that the people who actually show up for class often waste a lot of their time waiting (in silence) while technology is set up——most commonly, waiting for microphones to get passed around the room. It really interrupts the flow of the lecture and inhibits real classroom discussion. This is all the more frustrating as the online students are largely invisible; they hardly, if ever, participate in the class activities, even when prompted to post on class collaboration sites.

    Without intending to sound elitist, I do feel like the degree I will get at the end of this has been cheapened by this university's attempt to cater to the lowest common denominator.

  3. A lot of my frustration surrounds the fact that an online component to a class can truly enhance a learning experience -- but when an online class is marketed & perceived as just a cheap path to a degree, the opportunity to take online learning seriously is lost.