22 April 2012

Online courses and the race to the teacherless classroom

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Amidst the encouraging email exchanges among the faculty of the School of Communication, Humanities and Social Sciences in recent days about the quality of educational practices, administration and students at Central New Mexico Community College, the subject of online courses invariably reared its head. This is an important topic, but here and elsewhere it too often gets reduced to simplistic either/or analysis: it’s good because it reaches some students more easily (or allows the instructor to work at home in his or her pajamas) or it is bad because it eliminates the shared geographic place of the classroom.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with online teaching, but the deeper problem is the way in which online courses are being indiscriminately used, regardless of the subject matter, to serve the over-arching goal of reducing costs. This well-established race-to-the-bottom obsession in the new corporate model of higher education includes the heavy use of underpaid part-time faculty members who are encouraged to use textbooks and other materials, e.g. sample lectures, testbanks, online quizzes, and visual aids, produced by the dominant publishers, or providers of "learning solutions" as one claims. Teaching faculty don’t have to follow the  McCourse templates, but especially for part-timers, personally developed course materials are done at your expense—an unambiguous financial disincentive for an underpaid professional.

Online courses typically require students to write more than they would in a traditional class, so they can be used to develop and cultivate writing skills. Online courses have the obvious value of allowing otherwise geographically isolated students to more easily take a class with “others.” I did a hybrid course with students at universities in two countries, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, separated by one and half hours in clock time  but connected by an online course management system and a pair of videoconferencing suites that allowed each class to see and talk with each. One of the goals the of interdisciplinary course, which I co-taught with a psychologist on the other end, was to enhance students' level of inter-cultural awareness and this online format facilitated that.

However, some courses require, or work better with, the physical presence of others; some discussions are richer when they are verbal and allow gestures and other forms of “body language.” Courses for some subjects, like math and physics, often require students to work on formulas together on the same chalkboard while talking with each other.

A lot of schools use online courses simply as a marketing strategy to students who think it would be more “cool.” Think of academic and technical courses as just another product. Other schools, especially the for-profit ones, are using online strategies to move toward the teacherless course in which pre-packaged software assures uniform content, lesson plans, testing and even grading that can be done with minimal human labor. This is the real threat. If someone with an advanced degree writes the software that delivers the content and the lesson plans, develops and grades the tests, does the school really need someone with an advanced degree to deliver the product and manage the course? Probably not. The online instructor of today could be replaced by a less skilled manager who, for less pay, will run two, three, maybe four courses for the price of what one academic professional gets paid for teaching a single one, either online or in a physical classroom

Down the road, in addition to to the savings from reduced labor costs, there will be diminished need for physical classrooms and the associated operational and maintenance expenses for the buildings. Enter the realm of automated cyber teaching, a transformation similar to but a level above what ATMs did to human bank tellers, what the assembly line did to many skilled crafts and trades, and what robotics have done to the vehicle assembly lines. In the brave new world of the teacherless cyber classroom, human interaction, dialogic exchange and mentoring, could be jettisoned or cut to the bone as just another unnecessary expense.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought (as a PhD in education for a significant part of that "always") that a significant part of the success of 'education,' per se, was rooted the cooperation and collaboration between learners who were set a common task.
    Yes, I am what is called a "constructivist," who agrees with the observations of the likes of Vygotsky that learning is a cooperative project engaged in communally, and involving immediate, local give and take.
    Computer Assisted Education seems to me 1) to be a step away from that kind of intellectual activity; 2) to be a further alienation of the learner from the community of knowledge; and 3) to be an example of that long-pursued effort to develop the teacher-proof curriculum.
    But that might just be me, I guess...