Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The supposed future of higher ed

I just read yet another effusive article about "on-line learning" taking an expanding role in the UC. It was written by the dean of the Berkeley law school. The argument starts from a reasonable place: there are a lot of students and not very much money. It then goes into a university administrator's pipe dream...we can maintain, nay, improve the college experience by having an ever-increasing share of on-line classes. There's no need for real interactions between teachers and students in "meatspace"; a cleverly designed curriculum, wikis, message boards, on-line tests and telepresence will slash costs (and expenditures on teacher salaries). True, it's noted, "there are passionate objections." However, these are all summarily dismissed by what is basically an argument from negation: an objection is raised, and we are told "wrong." The objection is refuted by a rose-tinted chunk of this administrator's dream. Technology will take care of all problems, all students will be equally engaged, students will want to learn more, blah, blah, blah.

I wonder how long you have to have lived without seeing an actual, live, clueless freshman before you can believe such blithering nonsense. The memory of how real students operate has to fade, and you have to convince yourself that there's no real difference between teaching twenty students and two thousand. There's a lot of reality you have to forget before the Kool-aid of totally online education tastes good, so I'm guessing it's been at least a decade since the author of this pipedream taught a typical lower-level undergrad class.

There's a ton of problems with education in this state, and the UC and Cal State systems are in deep doo-doo. If we view the problem as a budget problem, what's being proposed here is a solution. If we view the problem as how to provide the same quality education to a growing number of students, I kind of doubt that diluting the teaching pool is the solution.

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