In an opinion piece, New York Times editor Bill Keller worries about what UD calls Click-Thru U. He cites a distance-friendly but cautious Stanford professor:

… [Sebastian] Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling…?

UD has noted the personal identity/cheating problem mucho times on this blog. She would add to Thrun’s comment a related problem: How do you keep an invisible professor from cheating? The same business of handing the course over to someone else pertains for the instructor. Who is actually running discussions, grading assignments, presenting material?

If the course is merely the professor being filmed teaching, with all interactivity handed to teaching assistants, why shouldn’t the professor merely re-run her performance, with occasional updates and tweaks?

Stanford’s president also has some questions.

… [John] Hennessy is a passionate advocate for an actual campus, especially in undergraduate education. There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills, he says. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.

Right. Click-Thru U. presents one private, discrete, online experience after another. You learn these skills (how to speak Italian, say) with this software; you learn those skills with that. Or you sit silent and alone in a room and watch some dude talk about the Civil War. You get absolutely no sense of the coherence, ongoing contentiousness, and value of a liberal arts education. Because you’ve perceived no model for higher education, no comprehensive structure for the disciplined inquiring life, you don’t learn why or how to keep learning.

In fact that abstraction – liberal arts education – means absolutely nothing to you. This is what Hennessey’s getting at with his how to keep learning worry. You haven’t claimed your education, as it were; you haven’t been able to grow the acquisition of this or that particular skill into a larger narrative – a narrative shared in real time with others on a real campus – having to do with the life-changing business of gradually coming to know what truly educated people know. What they sound like. What sorts of people they are. How they argue. Why they argue. How serious knowledge shapes personality, morality, politics. Why certain people passionately value intense thought about important things. All you miss with online eduction is the entire deep structure, the entire drama, of culture as it’s carried, struggled with, and articulated, by compelling embodiments of it at universities.

Keller concludes:

Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.

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2 Responses to “Culture Perceived”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    “If the course is merely the professor being filmed teaching, with all interactivity handed to teaching assistants, why shouldn’t the professor merely re-run her performance, with occasional updates and tweaks?”

    There is not much difference between this and 200-500 undergraduates being herded into a lecture hall, listening to a distant figure read his tattered notes in a monotone (or worse, tell lame jokes and off-topic anecdotes for 50 minutes, because he couldn’t bother to prepare for class), and then watching said distant figure depart, with the TAs left to pick up the pieces. That model of education was common enough decades before a single PC entered the classroom.

  2. Bill Harshaw Says:

    A blog’s commentary on “Occupy Wall STtreet” says that student loans seem to account for a fair share of the energy behind the protest. Is it possible down the line that higher education will further bifurcate: those who want in-person education will take out the student loans and put up with the ensuing debt and get the BA; others will opt for the remote option and get a remote BA (“ba”?) And business will decide the dollar value of each degree.

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