Some call it a tsunami, the sea change they see coming to the college classroom because higher education is migrating on-line. Even though the internet has been around for decades, even though on-line universities already make huge bucks, and even though home-schoolers have used the computer for more than a generation, higher education, which is notoriously conservative despite what Fox News says, doesn't change easily. But now, at long last, they are.
Two factors are making change inevitable. First, technology itself. Yesterday, I fell victim to my granddaughter's first texting jamboree--suddenly a whole bunch of her friends created a flash mob on-line, starting raining texts on a portal that had been inadvertently left open to grandpas and uncles. She's growing up, and for her, technology is second nature. Every time she uses my i-Pod Touch, the gizmo looks different when she leaves. She knows web angles far better than her grandpa with the Ph.D. Multiple generations of young people are fanatically connected right now, and for them and their smartphones education is just more content.
Another factor is the outlandish sticker price of higher education today. In 1970, I paid $700 a semester, as I remember--for everything, even clean sheets. Today, the same college costs somewhere in the area $15,000, without the shell game called scholarships of course. Average out-of-pocket costs, the website says, is something close to $11,000. Still, that's a chunk.
Colleges may be slow, but they're not dumb. On-line education both saves bucks and makes 'em, and higher education is a business--some think that's all it is, but let's not go there. Long ago, the college where I taught tried to sell itself by telling students that, if they came here, they wouldn't have massive intro classes characteristic of research universities--no, no, no, you'll learn from learned profs in intimate classes. The real innovations in on-line teaching today features classes of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Think efficiency.
Like it or not, it's where we're going, some say. I for one am glad I'm out.
On the other hand, I may well be thoroughly in this semester, should enough students register for a class I'm scheduled to teach. . .on-line. Mingle or get mangled, I figure. I'll try almost anything one time.
Mark Edmundson has long ago proved himself to be a voice worth my time. His op-ed in yesterday's New York Times rang the bell as the most e-mailed, which is to say, most read; and it is delightfully conservative (only a liberal conservative like myself can use those two words together in a fashion that isn't oxymoronic). Edmundson says on-line education will never carry the magic the classroom offers.
A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.My heart leaps at such truth, but my head--my business center--chuckles cynically. Edmundson and those like him (and I include myself) are the kinds of folks who consistently argue for the primacy of the liberal arts, as if studying art history or post-colonial literature is good for the soul. Others ask what on earth education has to do with the soul anyway?--it's really about the pocketbook. When kids graduate from college, after forking over all those bucks, they better dang well have a job.
I don't care. Edmundson is right, and it's interesting that he ends with the word lonely because at least some research now asserts that there is a connection between being on-line and being lonely, and it's not rocket science to determine why. The machine in front of me gives me the allusion of touching people (think Mark Zuckerman, of course), but such touching remains, well, virtual. What Edmundson is saying is that a good class (he says, "truly memorable") enchants, creating joy ("at least in some"). That's nice, our culture says more and more, but it's a not a job.
We'll see. This frumpy old conservative is going on-line this semester, if the course "makes." We'll see.
But still, write me up as a member in good standing of the church of Mark Edmundson.