Pushbutton teacher, now on public access television!

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.)

0 thoughts on “Pushbutton teacher, now on public access television!

  1. I actually took a community college “tele-course” (yes, I’m that old) where all the lectures were broadcast on local-access cable. I “attended” that class (read: plunked my ass down in front of the TV) precisely twice — it just didn’t seem worth it to me, and I figured I could pass the scan-tron test if I just read the book. Yet I almost never missed any of my on-campus classes, even though getting there took over an hour each way on the bus.

    Half-assed anecdotal conclusion: online courses (as a replacement for in-class courses, rather than as an option for accessibility purposes) send a not-so-subtle signal that this class isn’t worth getting out of your pajamas for, so your average student may end up taking it much less seriously.


  2. Just before Christmas I delivered a “webinar” lecture for pay in an empty room. Creepy, feedback-less chamber. I don’t think the experience of the content provider is what matters here–but man, mine sure was hollow.


  3. LadyProf: I think lecturing to an empty room is yet another view of what’s wrong with this picture. Who among us, when we enter a classroom, proceeds to a lecturn or “smart classroom” podium, starts talking, and doesn’t interact with our students at all? When I was a new lecturer and nervous about filling time, I was probably a lot less interactive with my students, but now even “lecture” days I ask my students questions and call on them for review information and ideas about images I’m showing them, etc. Your comment gives us yet another example of how technology can’t re-create the experience of being in a classroom with actual human beings.

    And Notorious: I’M so old I have friends close to my age who TAUGHT “distance learning” (i.e. videocameras in their classrooms, but I’m not sure if they were just taping lectures or if they were going out live to people watching them on the teevee at home.)

    We are nuts to give up on our classrooms. As I’ve said here before, the day that elite universities start offering online or “distance” courses as equivalent to their in-class courses (in however large a lecture hall), I’ll sign up. Until then, faculty must stand up for the value of what we do when we walk into a classroom and share space with students.


  4. I completed a distance undergrad science degree with U Waterloo (Ontario). Back in the day it was cassette tapes and mailing. Each course was – I think – a little less expensive than attending in person. While I’m sure the tapes were not frequently updated there was a lot of resources put into the program due to the bi-weekly assignment schedule. The only reason I could complete it was because I was working as a research tech at U Calgary. There is a lot to be said about peer pressure when it comes to completing an education.


  5. Since public libraries became pretty common in the US, self-education has been pretty available here. But few of us are smart enough or dedicated enough to do it on our own.

    But there it is, cheap for the end user: just go to the library and start checking out books, reading, and learning. Some people really are auto-didacts, but most of us need someone else to impose structure, give feedback, encourage, give reality checks, and so forth. That sort of attention takes a human being, and yes, costs money.

    I’m not worried that teachers won’t be needed any time soon. I am worried that we won’t be paid adequately, that we’ll be asked to teach classes so large that our students suffer. But we’ll still be here, muddling through.


  6. I’m no fan of distance learning at all, but on an anecdotal level, I have a number of friends working on various vocationally oriented masters degrees on line. These friends are already working professionals in their respective fields — public health, information management, health care administration — and working on their degrees online is their only option. The “providers” of these programs, though, are not the usual suspects of the for-profit world. I live in Philadelphia, and the prime movers in this arena are schools whose names begin with the letter D., T., P., and a comprehensive medical school whose name is the same as that of our third president. There’s another school here, a two-year school that’s not a cc, that offers paralegal certificates online.

    My point in this is that this wave of online education isn’t coming, it’s here. For better or worse.


  7. I’ll second what Chris said. Some of the best schools in the country (Drexel, Temple, Penn, Jefferson Medical) have moved into on-line education in ways that make sense. Hopkins and MIT have also begun offering on-line courses – in certain situations. There is also the hybrid course, partly on-line, partly in person, that my own school (a K-12) is working towards to give our students more flexibility. For example, in 8 years we would like for many of our students to be able to study someplace else or take off-campus internships for one term but we don’t want to sacrifice our innovative courses and curricula. Hybrid classes and on-line classes would allow our students to do that. There are complicated issues about funding this stuff and they aren’t cheap (right now, it takes more preparation and monitoring to do an on-line class well than a regular class well). But this stuff is coming, and, in some cases, is already here.

    Just out of curiosity, if a student was sick and asked to Skype into a lecture, would you let hir?


  8. I’m as reclusive and as adapted to long distance interaction as they come. When the internet started becoming a factor, my thought was, “Oh, good. I’ll never have to talk to anyone again.” (Just kidding. With a grain of truth.) So I was a natural for online classes, collaborations, and the lot. I’ve been around computers since 1978, and I also find them simple to use.

    And every time I’m involved in a web-based project — every single time — I’m struck by the lack of cohesion and motivation among the participants. That includes me, The Natural.

    Research is starting to come out, like this dissertation in 2005 (pdf), suggesting that the hallmark of successful online work is personal, physical interaction at the beginning and other times interspersed through the project or course. There has to be real-space connection or somehow something just does not click. (That research involved software engineers, who are probably even more Natural than I am.)

    I won’t be surprised if it turns out, when they start doing fMRIs, that whole areas of the brain aren’t activated without actual human interaction.

    So I’m watching our future progress with considerable interest. The indications suggest a purely online model can’t work for plain old neurological reasons. But let’s do a huge field experiment (with lots of short term profit). Trash education first, assume the pieces can be picked up later.


  9. Also: Bardiac raises an excellent point about libraries. They’ve been around long enough to show rather clearly what the limits of self-motivation and self-discipline are for many people. Television-as-education just confirms it.


  10. “We are nuts to give up on our classrooms. As I’ve said here before, the day that elite universities start offering online or “distance” courses as equivalent to their in-class courses (in however large a lecture hall), I’ll sign up.”

    You can put that pen down, Historiann. Carnegie Mellon says “we’ll put the automated courses online, but give our students credit? Nuh-uh.” (It’s what I posted about yesterday.)


  11. To Chris & Western Dave: I know online is here. My point is that these courses are hardly equivalent to their meatspace alternatives. If Penn, Drexel, and Temple want to trash their brands by going whole hog on online education, then bless their hearts. (I’ll take another look when Penn makes their B.A. degree entirely online. But, somehow I don’t think THAT’s going to happen.)

    Online courses for *some* Master’s programs might make sense because people admitted to those programs have already proved themselves successful with undergrad level work. Western Dave’s example of using online college courses to complement a meatspace elite private school curriculum is less offensive to me too, because of the supervision his students will get. Where I see real problems with this is in taking students who haven’t yet proved they can read, write, and work independently and putting them into online courses. Quixote’s point about online working only when there’s also significant meatspace interaction too sounds right on to me. But discussions of online education rarely offer this kind of nuance (including discussions here, I will admit.)

    As for me, they’ll have to take me out of the classroom in a box before I’ll teach online. I’m with Jonathan that what’s in my brain is not “content,” students are not “customers,” and going whole hog in for online education might ease even more of us out of secure jobs. (And it’s not like the profession hasn’t been eroded away as it is for 40 years!)


  12. I taught several distance education courses. Some were transmitted to a remote classroom where student had audio connection to ask questions. Other courses were videoed and the videos were mailed overseas (90s). I was the teacher in all of them. With modern technology, I can envision “canning” and “splicing” the teacher to run the same class time and again. It will be an interesting experiment and we should then be paid royalties.

    We teach courses that by and large follow a textbook. Such courses can be online. I usually tell the student in class that I’ll try to add to the text; just teaching the text in class is pointless.

    We also teach courses where we have to repeatedly explain, demonstrate and solve problems. Such courses will never be taught online. The exchange, the glazed student eyes, the absorption of the solution are all personal and quite difficult. We must be there.


  13. I was just talking to a friend who teaches English at a CC and teaches some courses in the classroom and some on line. (Sometimes different versions of the same course). The on line courses are very interactive. It’s not just her lecturing; there is a lot of discussion. It is a different kind of teaching from what I do, but it certainly compels the student to do a lot of informal writing.

    Of course, it’s very labor-intensive. Even when it’s something she’s taught before, so that the materials are already set up, she easily puts as much effort into it as into a meatspace class. It couldn’t be packaged and taught by a drone. Her institution does this not to save money on faculty (she is TT and this is part of her normal teaching load) but to serve their student population. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Not just because it’s a CC: being able to communicate well in an on-line environment is a useful skill and
    probably students at all institutions could benefit from the experience of having to do so in an intensive way.

    And Historiann and Notorious–I’m so old that when my undergrad university was touting its shiny new initative in distance education (i.e. videotaping faculty lectures), it wasn’t when I was a student, or junior faculty, but at my 20th reunion.


  14. Just to be clear, my point is that on-line and hybrid courses done well are different from, but certainly not cheaper than, traditional meat space courses. When I TA’d for Sidney Fine, his lectures could certainly have been on-line. In fact, it would have helped since he rewrote them every year and moved at a blistering pace so even though I TAed for him multiple times, there were tons of times I wanted to hit the rewind button b/c I missed something. And Fine, RIP, did not allow questions during class. Section was always an adventure as the first activity was usually “did anybody catch what the difference was between the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 versus the Victim’s of Crime reauthorization act of 1988?”

    That said, the difference between content delivery and skills development is huge and when folks talk about distance learning they are usually only talking about content delivery and not at all about skills development.

    Someone I know who ran an on-line course that sounded both rigorous and interesting was on a round-table with me about teaching at a history conference (we were the alternative practitioners). She talked a lot about how many of the people in the class (mostly non-traditional students) were more engaged in the on-line classroom than the traditional classroom because they were less intimidated. But she also spent a fair amount of time talking about the hard work involved in creating the right kind of on-line environment that could be successful. Among the more interesting insights, students had to do a mandatory post each week on a question that had nothing to do with the course such as “what is your happiest memory, what is your favorite food.” These posts helped people connect to each other and kept discussions from devolving into hostile finger pointing by reminding folks that everybody in the class was a real person. The actual academic discussions were better when they had these mandatory posts then when they didn’t, even though the posts had nothing to do with the course.


  15. http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

    I consider it quite relevant that MIT is giving away a huge amount of course material–lecture notes, problem sets, videos of lectures, etc–on the Internet for free. They obviously don’t think this is going to in any way, shape, or form dilute the value of the real education they provide on campus in their classrooms, nor do they think it is going to make it more difficult for them to charge their tuition to eager highly qualified students.

    This “distance” “on-line” shitte is just a fucken scam to squeeze money out of both the pockets of non-wealthy people and the federal government who supports their education. Elites recognize the scam for what it is, and will sure as fucke continue to pay extravagant tuition to send their children to elite universities. This trend will lead to an increase in educational inequaility that parallels the current trend in increasing financial inequality, and will further solidify the class distinctions in the United States that are getting stronger and stronger.


  16. As I was finishing up my undergrad, I needed one more social science elective. I took an anthropology course using videotapes. It was a shock when I went to the prof’s office to pick up my paperwork for the exam and encounter the same face, but clearly about fifteen years older!

    Thank you, Historiann, for pointing out that doing online teaching well is usually difficulty, extremely time-intensive (for both instructors and students) and, thus, very expensive.

    All of my courses are as hybrid as my cautious department will allow. I love teaching online, but to do that 100% requires extremely capable students, teachers and a comfort-level with the technology that few possess.

    Let’s also be honest that even with form-letters and cut-and-paste super-skills, I spend a lot more time repeating myself online than I do in the classroom. I’d have to say that I couldn’t support as many students in an online-only course as I do in a mostly-traditional class. Careful hybridization might work best, but that’s not going to save much money or provide an instant solution.

    Aw, heck. Let’s just watch some TV online. That’s good enough, eh?


  17. “It was a shock when I went to the prof’s office to pick up my paperwork for the exam and encounter the same face, but clearly about fifteen years older!”

    HA-ha! But did you feel ripped off that the lectures hadn’t been changed in FIFTEEN YEARS?!?! I think I’m just rounding the corner on my fifteenth year of teaching, and I’d have to stick my head in an oven if they didn’t change a LOT since 1995.

    It’s other folks here who have pointed out that teaching well and effectively online isn’t a cost savings. I completely understand that. Thanks to everyone for complicating my own views of online ed. (But I’m still NOT volunteering!) I love your point, Janice, that you repeat yourself overnovernover again even more online. That makes complete sense to me.


  18. Another point that hasn’t yet come up here, I think, is the diminished focus that online participants put in. When running our meatspace classrooms, most of us enforce a few rules of engagement even if we don’t make them formal. We might not ban websurfing or smartphones but we’re often free to do so, and we can encourage attention.

    Many people consume their online education modules with a second computer humming off to the side, for boredom-abating interventions. They remind me of the comment by Miss Manners, asked to opine on the propriety of knitting in public gatherings, that she’d knitted throughout her classes at Wellesley … and ended up with an education and sweaters that were both serviceable but smaller than she’d hoped.


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