Jonathan Rees hits another one out of the park today with “When Professors Disappear,” his demolition of the magical thinking about online courses, for-profit colleges, and the labor history that reveals the insidiousness of these phenomena. (And, something silly someone said in the New York Times about disappearing professors because the internets will replace us, or something.) I’d like to just quote the whole thing, but that would be plagiarism, but here’s some flava:
Proponents of distance education might tell you something about how wonderful it is that students can learn all the way from India or in their pajamas, but anybody who knows anything about labor history knows that this kind of large-scale technological investment is really all about costs. Professors demand salaries. Cut out the professors and save the cost of their salaries.
But that’s where the labor history analogy breaks down. The Bonsack cigarette rolling machine not only destroyed the jobs of untold thousands of workers, it led to really, really cheap cigarettes. Online education, an education so bad that some employers won’t even consider someone with a degree earned from a for-profit college administered this way, is actually seven times more expensive than a real education at a typical community college. Professors haven’t disappeared entirely yet, but obviously none of the cost-savings from online education have been passed on to students. Since even online courses with poorly-paid adjuncts save schools so much money in costs compared to real classes, shouldn’t they cost less rather than seven times more?
Jonathan, I’m sure we’re just too stupid to understand all of that awesome free enterprise, for-profit magic! Here’s another comparison I’d make–specifically, to address the worry (or hope?) that the internets will make actual human professors irrelevant. Not only is this belief based on the fiction that scholars are merely teachers instead of researchers and creators of new knowledge, it ignores the history of that famous and now ubiquitous twentieth-century technology, television. The television era is far afield from mine, but even I’ve read some of the fantastic utopianism that was written and blathered about teevee in its early years: this was going to make our democracy live up to its promise because of the fantastic educations that would be available to everyone, for free! Everyone could become fantastically learned by just sitting down and absorbing the marvelous lessons of the television!
And how’s that worked out so far? Television was exploited for profit, and humans have showed their genius for turning technology into entertainment. There is no perfect comparison of one technology to another, but just for fun, let’s ask who’s making money out there on the internets so far, friends? (Not me! I’m an educational nonprofit, after all.) Pornographers, gambling programs, big box stores, and for-profit “universities,” that’s who’s found a way to make code pay. (Or for the most part, entertainment.) If people want to burn through $30,000 or $40,000 online, I’d stick with the porn, gambling, and/or shopping: at least they’ll get something back from their investment.
And now, some fantastic educational television learning of futures past about internal combustion! Go ahead, kids: skip your classes and just sit back and watch videos on YouTube. (It’s pretty much the same thing.)