Monday, November 15, 2010

Matrixed Higher Education

Henry Kissenger famously noted (even though the fame doesn't justifiably belong to him) that: "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." I don't think that's what's going on in the on-line education kerfuffle.

In June I blogged about the effort UC Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley has been leading to "pilot" on-line learning dispensed by a leading research university. That effort is moving ahead on schedule, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education in May, with a call for proposals for up to 25 pilot courses, according to a UC-published puff piece earlier this month. But, bowing to the kinds of faculty balkiness that Dean Edley warned of when he worried that "the coalition of the willing among frontline faculty who would like to pursue this idea will be stopped dead in their tracks by the bureaucracy," this month's announcement from UC's central "Office of the President" devoted over 25% of its word count to a section titled "Faculty concerns to be studied."

That was enough backpeddling for Nanette Asimov to write an article for the San Francisco Chronicle two days later, titled UC leaders downplay plans for online courses. As she spins it, "University of California students will be able to enroll in the schools' first top-tier, UC-quality online courses by January 2012, but UC officials have strongly scaled back their expectations about what such courses can achieve. [...] the new effort was intended to see whether UC might pull off a fully online degree program as rigorous as what the selective university offers in its classrooms. For now, that plan is on hold."

In a related item, did you catch Bill Gates on the topic of technology replacing higher ed, at the Techonomy Conference 2010, in August? "The self motivated learner," Gates predicted over the summer, "will be on the web, and there will be far less place-based [education]. [...] College -- except for the parties -- needs to be less place-based. Place-based activity in that college thing [sic] will be five times less important than it is today."

Sharp-eyed monitors of zeitgeist-past will recall that in the mid-1970s Bill Gates dropped out of a small, well-endowed institution of higher education called Harvard, based in a place known as Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A statistical aside. Census figures for October 2008 show 11,378,000 students enrolled as undergraduates in institutions of higher education. Harvard College currently enrolls 6,655 undergraduates. Dividing the oranges by the apples, we can guesstimate that Harvard enrolls one out of 1,736 college students in the United States. That fact that Gates was admitted to Harvard in the first place means -- wait for it -- he was never your typical student. That he, or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of Harvard and still became billionaires doesn't predict much about education as it applies to the rest of us. I will say straight out that I am grateful for my place-based education, and grateful that nobody tried to take it away from me, stick me in front of a One Laptop Per Child screen, and call it an 'equivalently' rigorous experience.

See, here's the thing.

The CHE reports that Suzanne Guerlac, a UC Berkeley faculty member in French, believes that "[o]ffering full online degrees would undermine the quality of undergraduate instruction [...] by reducing the opportunity for students to learn directly from research faculty members. 'It's access to what?' asked Ms. Guerlac. 'It's not access to UC, and that's got to be made clear.'" I'd like to second that opinion.

Look at and listen to the Bill Gates video embedded above. All three minutes of it. Listen to the part where he talks about the value of a "full immersion environment" to education. He's careful to speak of this value only in the context of elementary and secondary schooling, which he likens to baby-sitting in one breath, before turning around in the next and saying that the "full immersion environment" is what enables students to learn successfully. Wha??? It's babysitting and it's the most effective form of education?

Notice that he doesn't actually explain why he thinks this full immersion stuff works for younger students but suddenly loses its applicability when kids reach college level. Pay close attention to the special hand-waving transitions at 1:14-1:16 ("That's very different than saying, okay, for college courses...") and 1:34-1:36 ("The self-motivated learner will be on the web..."). Why is it different? What about the learner (I hate that word) who is not self-motivated? Later in the video he's making a case for on-line education because it's cheaper, not because it is an effective mode of education.

It would be an ideologue's mistake to say there's nowhere along the Spectrum of What's Good that on-line education fits. The thing to remember, though, is that on-line learning is not the same thing as face-to-face, interactive experience with peers and teachers. Sure, it may be good for teaching some things. Maybe even some useful things, probably better in some areas than others. But what of the way students learn from the other students in a seminar or discussion section, and from the interactions those students have with a professor or a graduate student instructor?

On-line education isn't visceral, and it lacks the enormous incentives to learning inherent in synergies, competitiveness, sympathy and other forms of interpersonal zing that crop up in engaged rooms full of students and teachers. Ever wonder why people pay $40 or $80 or $120 for two or three hours of live theatre (or sports, or music), then complain about a cable TV bill that costs that much per month? It's the value, people.

And therein lies the issue behind the issue.

Across the United States, public funding for higher education is being pared back. In many states, this is true for elementary and secondary school education as well. In September of last year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgenau and Vice Chancellor Frank D. Yeary wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. They argued that "Public universities by definition teach large numbers of students and substantially help shape our nation," describing how the top ten public universities enroll 350,000 undergraduates compared to a sixth as many for the eight Ivy League schools. They argued that strong public support for public higher ed means that public universities "have an admirable cross-section of ethnically and economically diverse students. In essence, their student bodies look like America. They are the conduits into mainstream society for a huge number of highly talented people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as the key to the American dream of an increasingly better life for the middle class."

Then they describe how, "over several decades there has been a material and progressive disinvestment by states in higher education. The economic crisis has made this a countrywide phenomenon, with devastating cuts in some states, including California. Historically acclaimed public institutions are struggling to remain true to their mission as tuitions rise and in-state students from middle- and low-income families are displaced by out-of-state students from higher socioeconomic brackets who pay steeper fees."

Public funding for higher ed is being pared back internationally too. The government of the U.K., as part of a drastic package of austerity measures outlined last month, has proposed "to cut education spending and steeply increase tuition for students," drawing tens of thousands of protesters to London, as reported by the NY Times on 10 Nov.

Why is this happening?

  • Is it to hurry along the well-documented shift in wealth from working- and middle-classes to an economic elite?
  • Does it follow from that shift in wealth that a smaller cohort of educated workers is required to drive the economy?
  • Is public divestment from higher ed an effect of economic globalization, in which a lion's share of 'the smarts' doesn't need to come from the United States and Europe any more because nations like China and India are supposed to be doing such a bang-up job educating their vast populations, and business owners can pay lower wages for their labor?
  • Is it an effect of 'higher productivity,' in which fewer workers plus better technology produce greater wealth -- and -- I can never get this straight what with the competing narratives -- does this mean that there are fewer jobs to go around or that this magically-increasing wealth is somehow supposed to lift all boats?
  • Is diminishing public support for higher ed an effect of fetishizing "the free market," an ideology that has been applied with an overly broad and abolutist brush?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I'm inclined to believe that their answers are driving the stampede to 'on-line education' in the U.S. and abroad ... not because it's better, but because it's cheaper and because some groups of policymakers imagine that diminishing quality of your average citizen's education is, well, not a big deal. Not to them.

It's not the availability of technology -- it's the ends that social, economic, and political forces are driving toward, using technology as a means. You can't build a case on a three minute video of Bill Gates talking at a conference up at Lake Tahoe, but the brand of "vision" without substance that he was espousing earlier this year does raise my antennae.

There's something about on-line education -- and the agendas that may be driving it -- that makes me nervous. I don't know about you, but I'm not so keen on living in a world engineered and operated by people whose educational background and trained compliance could have been lifted straight out of The Matrix. Let alone governed by some shadowy Architect!

No comments:

Post a Comment