10/16/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

The Vanishing American Professor


Among the fears and myths of online learning is that students will now become detached from their faculty and fellow students -- that technology will further isolate and fragment the academic community. The sad truth is that this detachment had already occurred. There has been a slow and steady erosion of contact on campus -- so slow few have noticed its insidious pattern. Educational technology might provide a means of restoring communication within an academic enterprise that has already compromised its ideals and sense of community.

Over only a few generations, the academic year has shrunk, as have course requirements for students and the teaching loads of full-time faculty. Faculty and students now meet less frequently and part company as quickly as possible. At one time, semesters ran through much of the year -- the fall term ran into January and spring into June. Now, each semester is typically a tightly packed fourteen weeks -- with annual education compressed into twenty-eight weeks, or little more than half of the year. To start vacations as quickly as possible, final examinations are less common and often administered during the last class session.

At one time, academic course credits and contact hours were in synch -- one credit for one hour met each week. Now, many institutions award four credits for three hours of interaction -- without increasing credits needed to graduate. When undergraduates take thirty-two courses overall, instead of forty, they receive twenty percent less instruction as a result. These students are in class perhaps two hours each weekday, for roughly half of a year.

And they are fortunate if these classes are taught by full-time, fully enfranchised members of the faculty. With a far greater emphasis on scholarship, faculty successfully argued over the years for lower teaching loads to free time to conduct research. Many institutions have subsidized that research time by replacing professors with adjuncts and graduate teaching fellows -- who now make up the majority of those standing in front of America's university classrooms.

The faculty advertised in the college's promotion materials are often deployed to smaller, more advanced courses -- leaving the larger and more introductory courses to those on the institution's margins. Those teaching part-time have other lives and commitments, and are rarely on campus to hold office hours and meet informally with their students. E-mail often becomes the only means by which students and their teachers communicate. We have created a buffer zone between student and professoriate -- and some students go through their academic careers with few one-on-one conversations with a real faculty member.

The only question a parent of a prospective undergraduate should ask on the college tour of rock climbing walls and residence hall dining facilities is: Who will be teaching my child?

Students receive the same degrees their parents might have -- with far less exposure to full-time faculty and yet at far greater cost. The exploding price tag of higher education is even more striking when the cost per precious moment of interaction with faculty is calculated. As tuition escalated, educational contact declined. The public outcry on rising tuition misses the real issue of value.

Students pay for an education, not merely a credential. There should be even greater concern about the legitimacy and intrinsic benefits of that educational experience, not just its sticker price. Discerning which institutions provide that value and integrity is much more challenging for the consumer to unearth. Some institutions are far better than others at exposing students to a full array of rich educational opportunities. But the forces have conspired for decades to minimize faculty-student interaction.

Here is where educational technology provides some mitigating promise. When used well, this technology can help build bridges between students and their professors, enrich the educational experience, and leverage full-time faculty so they have far greater impact on learning. Education can become continuous, and less episodic. Rather than ships passing on the campus, students and faculty can be constantly engaged with one another.

We have only begun to plunge into the varieties and implications of online learning. Its potential power will be to build relationships on campus and beyond, keep the learning process in constant motion, and force us to rethink the models, assumptions, and calendars we use to deliver education.

Technology is not just about cost efficiencies, but about educational efficacy. The professor-student relationship has already unwoven. Rather than revere a pre-technological time that has long past, or fear a future that seems at odds with our pastoral views of college life, the course of higher learning might rest on how we harness technology to restore community on campus and imaginatively unleash how scholars and students can be re-engaged in the learning process.

Jay A. Halfond is Dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.