I had an excellent, thought-provoking discussion last week at UC San Diego courtesy of iGrad with a really well-chosen group of professors: Dr. Beyer of National University, a nonprofit online university that is the second-largest private institution in California; Dr. Allison Rossett, a professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State; Joe Safdie, a poet who teaches at San Diego Mesa Community college; and Monte Johnson, a philosophy prof at UCSD whose field is Aristotle.
Johnson was especially good to have on the panel because he's a principled, absolutist opponent of online education. He said repeatedly that while he could abide the use of hybrid models and online resources to supplement the classroom experience, he thought it was "absurd" to pretend that a degree granted entirely online could possibly approach the quality of one in the traditional classroom. He handed out a Xerox (not available online) of a list of references to research critical of the quality of online classes; on the opposite side was this letter signed by hundreds of professors objecting to Washington State's "2020 Commission on the Future of Higher Education" , strenuously objecting to the commission's recommendations about accountability, productivity, and increased availability of online classes.
It's easy to satirize the position of someone defending the status quo, who trivializes and dismisses "education by CD-ROM and internet" out of motives that include inherent conservativism and fear of losing one's own job and respected position in society. There was more than a whiff of that spirit in the room. But I think Johnson made some really good points that should be taken under consideration, not to stall this transformation but to guide it.
1) Open educational resources don't equal education. Access to a video of a lecture is not the same as access to a class. Content is infrastructure -- the first step.
2) We can't codify exactly what might be lost in the transition from online to in-person learning, but it pays to look at what goes on in the classroom really really closely so we can either replicate it or enhance it in the online environment, or supplement it with real-world experience in hybrid models. At one point I asked Johnson what it is exactly that he does in his philosophy class that he thinks can't be done online. "Do you teach through the laying on of hands?" No, he said, but I look people in the eye, I call on them, we converse back and forth. Safdie mentioned then that he teaches through videoconference, which also involves a form of eye contact; platforms like Moodle allow for plenty of either real-time text-based chat or posting on a Facebook-like wall, which seems like a fine way to discuss philosophy to me -- not too different in fact from the promulgation of ideas through a series of written papers in dialogue with each other, like at a symposium for example.
3) From the Washington letter: "One of the problems with the newest crop of distance-learning institutions is that they are motivated entirely by profit."
This is true. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Public institutions need to get involved in defining online education or it will be defined for them by a set of institutions with very different agendas.
4) "In reality a privileged few will continue to enjoy the personal and economic benefits of face-to-face instruction at schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley, and M.I.T. The less fortunate citizens of our state will make do with downsized and underfunded campuses or settle for inferior and dehumanizing "virtual" alternatives."
The thought of a two-tiered system like this makes me queasy. Online-enabled higher education doesn't have to be inferior or dehumanizing. It can represent the best of what education has to offer today. Yet there's a danger that this will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The DIY U future allows community college students anywhere in the country to access the same number of library books, the same lectures and course materials as are available at MIT and Stanford. It can also allow students to collaborate across institutions and form networks of peers and mentors outside the state and city where they happen to live and go to school. In this way there's a potential to overcome old hierarchies. But it's not a given that things will turn out this way.
The reality today is that students with the fewest resources are at the institutions with the fewest resources, and that those who are accessing online-only educational programs are doing so largely because they have to work while they go to school.
If people who care about both quality and equality in higher education don't get deeply involved in the use of technology to stretch the resources we have in order to educate everyone to the best of our ability and their abilities, then the future will be shaped by people with worse motives and visions.