← Previous Post: | Next Post:


Fredrik deBoer on Online College Education.

I’ve tried all number of ways to [educate my writing students] outside of class meetings – marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

… [With the move to online education,] not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.

… I’m dedicated to the task of getting as many marginal students in and through as possible, and I think that’s an absolute moral need for our colleges and our society. But … online models are precisely the opposite of what’s likely to work.

… We can build a vast edifice of online higher education where, as happens with for-profit online schools now, we all agree to juke the stats, grading and graduating students who lack even basic skills, and degrading the very notion of higher education. That’s an option.


UD would add two things to this.

1. It’s not merely the “basic human accountability” that only takes place face to face; it’s students witnessing and talking to, week after week, a human being they respect being serious about something. Wanting in some sense to be like your professor is not a contemptible desire; on the contrary, many people who become serious, reflective citizens probably got there in part through having been inspired by engagement with a serious, reflective teacher. Remember what Tony Judt wrote about one of his professors, who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

Which leads me to my second thing:

2. What good professors are ultimately serious about is their students. That is, this human mutual accountability or whatever you want to call it goes both ways. In the classroom, you are looking at me, and I am looking at you. I am looking at you as a young, smart, promising human being wanting to clarify aspects of human life. This sight moves me; and I want not only to talk to you about human complexities but to exhibit to you what one older person (me) who has had a reasonably disciplined exposure to some of those complexities looks like, sounds like, acts like. I want to do exactly what Judt’s professor did: Listen with great care to what you say and how you say it; and then analyze what you have said in a way that maybe moves you forward in your relationship to it. Maybe makes you less emotional, more analytically neutral; maybe makes you aware that other people before you have formulated things in a way similar to yours, but somewhat more nuanced, etc., etc. That is teaching.

Margaret Soltan, February 7, 2014 11:47AM
Posted in: CLICK-THRU U.

Trackback URL for this post:

13 Responses to “Fredrik deBoer on Online College Education.”

  1. charlie Says:

    UD, it would seem to be impossible for professors to become teachers first and researchers second until we change the way tenure is granted.

    As a former STEM pupil, none of my teachers gained tenure due to their teaching, it was gained in spite of their teaching assignments. With the current corporate model of running unis, unless profs are chasing and getting research money, the unis are losing money. Straight up, the hard cheese is that time in the classroom is the last thing many unis/departments want from their teachers. Unless that changes, then a degraded online education is all that will be left for students, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Stanford or MIT that delivers the content, it isn’t going to be worth much….

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    charlie: I take your point, but I actually think that the even most corporate university understands the importance of a healthy enrollment, selectivity, the willingness of good students to pay tuition, the maintenance of an atmosphere of seriousness and engagement with students on campus, etc. Of course you’re right that at many schools all the real institutional rewards have to do with research; but one could argue that as the pool of university applicants shrinks, and as attrition remains a problem, no university wants to risk alienating its source of tuition dollars through professorial indifference.

  3. charlie Says:

    Yes, UD, but the problem has been that with the creation of a corporate model of governance, we have the situation where unis been substituting tenure track professionals with adjunct professors, meaning universities are not going to make a resource commitment to get experts in their fields. At some point, it will become apparent to any potential college student that the money spent isn’t returned with a higher quality education.

    So where does this leave students? Because it isn’t just the adjunct phenomena they have to deal with, but the billions that have been spent on STEM buidouts, which must be funded by research money. Those shiny new labs aren’t created for the benefit of undergrads, it’s to attract NIH/NSF/Pentagon money. That mechanism mandates that the priority must be given to research, rather than to teaching. To service the debt, something must be sacrificed. And as your earlier post regarding the University of New Hampshire exemplifies, it ain’t gonna be athletics. The cost will be borne by undergrads. Explains why, imo, on line education is going to be marketed as an alternative….

  4. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Yes, UD, and yes, Charlie (though FWIW at my own little public university, teaching is the most important consideration in tenure decisions). Now for a rant (you might want to exit now!) about being serious about our students. Out at the limit where the good stuff happens, this means helping students be serious about their world and their places in it. It means inspiration, which in turn means being alert for those occasions when inspiration is possible. Example (too pat, perhaps, but actually true): a student who so far has been kind of a f*ckup in my comp class drops by my office to announce he’s going to miss class next week. OK, what’s up with that? Well, says my student, I want to be with my younger brother and he has to go to court. We talk. Drug case. Little brother’s being pressured into a plea bargain, he’s not getting any really meaningful defense, etc.–the usual, just another instance of the racial injustice that plays out hundreds of times every day. I reach over to my bookshelf for my copy of Paul Butler’s Let’s Get Free. (It’s about an up-and-coming, gung-ho black prosecutor who’s kind of an oreo until he gets arrested himself.) You didn’t read Frankenstein, I say to my student, and we both laugh a little, but you can read this as a make-up. Oh, and it really sucks about your brother.

    Two weeks later, the little brother has a bogus drug conviction and a diligent new probation officer. And my student has read the book. In fact he has, as he tells me, for the first time in his life read a book. We talk about the book at first, but we wind up talking about the odds of his moving from our little Division II school up to the NBA, or even to Euroball. Not good! We talk about the athletics system, a topic on which he schools me more than I do him. What I know is that ESPN and FOX Sports and Mark Emmerich and the whole contemptible lot make tons of money as student-athletes mostly get screwed. What I know is that 70 percent of my school’s basketball players last only one year here: the coach recruits academically marginal juco transfers and plays them for the year it takes them to flunk out. What my student knows is what the whole thing *feels* like. He talks about how good it feels when he’s playing. He talks about how weird it feels to think that even as he’s playing, he’s being played (I make a note to myself to bring this up later as an example of alienation). He talks about how weird it is being one of about a dozen black guys in our little rural college town. I bring the campus webpage up on my 27-inch Mac and we have a little laugh over how, click after click, the PR office makes our student body “look like America.” Anyway, he says he’s been thinking about it all, and he’s been thinking about law school. A whole different game, I say, but sure, you could do that. Hard work, but you already know how to work hard. What’s hard, he says, is just sitting there and doing nothing while a bunch of ************s treat my little brother like a piece of ****. He looks like he’s about to cry.

    The point is not that I’m such a great teacher (though I am!) but that most probably none of this would have happened if this kid had been taking comp online, or from an adjunct who just didn’t have the time to talk or even an office in which to talk. It might not have happened had my academic vice president prevailed in his crusade to raise the size of this particular course from 24 to 36 students. This VP is representative of the bloodless technocratic breed that believes education is “content delivery” and that “performance goals” like “increased student retention” and “enhanced student success” can be “attained” by having everyone sit in endless meetings and workshops, and applying for federal grants, and initiating “promising new programs” that are “supported by data.” This breed believes, too, that we can be more “cost-effective” in “moving the needle” on these “performance goals” by “flipping” our classrooms, by adopting the right “learning management system,” by awarding “badges” for the completion of “mini-modules,” by replacing actual learning with credit for “competencies”–by doing just about anything but taking our students seriously as actual human beings with actual human desires.

    Thanks for listening. I feel better now!

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dr_D: It was a pleasure reading your rant. Thank you for it.

  6. gtwma Says:

    I’ll play contrarian.

    First, the pool of university applicants isn’t shrinking and isn’t going to shrink any time soon. What’s arguably shrinking is the pool of traditional age American university applicants. But, the number of working age adults who want (hell, NEED) to further their education and the number of international applicants that want education from U.S. institutions is huge and growing.

    The question is whether our universities are going to find new and different ways to respond to those student and their desire for education. I think there are a thousand different ways universities will respond–some by focusing on the teaching of those traditional students and some by continuing the crazy administrative/research/athletics arms race with ever greater corporate influences to replace stagnant federal funding and ever greater ethical compromises and violations

    And some will find ways educate these new students. What I always find curious is how UD (and Andrew Sullivan, and Tyler Cowan, and others) can demonstrate so clearly the ability to communicate, engage and educate through online means, yet can be so dismissive of the idea that faculty and universities find ways to work with those students through those same methods.

    I had my first experience teaching online about 15 years ago, and I still recall the interactions we had discussing health economics, where the participants included a member of a religious order in Canada, a New York City mom, and a young woman from Kuwait. The diversity of perspectives and ideas shared was stunning beyond many undergraduate classes in resident instruction I’ve taught. And this summer, as I met and interacted with our first group of students in my department’s online graduate program when they visited campus for a two week intensive, I experienced a community of scholars teaching and learning each other, with our faculty, as vibrant as any I’ve seen in 20+ years. What we’ve learned in teaching them is already teaching us how to be better teachers with our students in residence.

    There are HUGE problems yet to be solved–maybe even not possible to be solved. And, plenty of schools are going to continue to screw up and not value teaching and not provide a meaningful education, etc. But, there are also going to be some incredible successes, both schools that turn their attention to renewing the campus based education of resident students and others that address the huge and growing demand for education from adults and international populations.

  7. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I’ll come down somewhere in the middle, and say that online education can be done well, and can even replicate some of the best aspects of f2f education, but that online classes that do these things are not massive (though I think there’s a place for MOOCs as cultural enrichment), and therefore is not cheap. I can conduct a pretty good conference over skype (or the equivalent), and, while it may not offer the same opportunity for fruitful digressions as Dr. D so eloquently describes, it gets the job done pretty well for a specific subgroup of my students (midlife professionals who somehow missed out on getting a B.A. or B.S., but have considerable professional and life skills, taking a junior-level writing in the disciplines course). There may even be a few people in that demographic who need 100- and 200-level classes, but many fewer than administrators pushing online ed hope. Most people who need 100- and 200-level classes, whatever their age, need to learn (or re-learn) how to learn, need to develop other life skills, and/or need the sort of enculturation to a world broader than the impoverished (in one or more ways) one they’ve inhabited so far. That kind of education is best accomplished in face to face classes, preferably small ones (or at least ones with a regular small-group component: discussion section, lab, or the like).

    The advantages of online education that gtwma mentions come into play mostly in the kind of situation (s)he describes: graduate (or at least very advanced undergraduate) classes, with students who are already well-acculturated into the business of learning in communities (and also somewhat acculturated, through education, professional experience, or both, into the discipline they’re studying). At this level, online education works well, either alone, or (probably better) as an adjunct to periodic intense face to face meetings (a few weekends during a semester, a week during the summer, something along those lines, perhaps with skyping-in possibilities for those who can’t travel, but can set aside the time).

    To come back to the original post, what all of these examples of effective education — face to face, online, or blended — have in common is, indeed, individual attention from the instructor (or at least a members of a closely-knit team of instructors and/or TAs who spend significant out-of-class time meeting and coordinating with each other).

    There’s also undoubtedly room for de-centered spaces in which people, some of them more experienced/expert than others, share information and ideas — whether you call them MOOCs or online communities or whatever. But that sort of experience shouldn’t be confused with a college/university education, which should, indeed, entail attention to the individual student by an individual, well-qualified, not (entirely) overwhelmed, instructor.

  8. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Online programs for graduate students who are already socialized into the manners and customs of higher ed? That works. For profoundly marginalized and ignorant teenagers whose taste runs more to Nicki Minaj than Tyler Cowan? Not so much. Relegating these students to online education will be just the next step in their marginalization.

  9. charlie Says:

    Have any of you good folks read the work of the late David Noble? If not, please do, his book “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education.” His research underscored that the professor was to become as any other worker, de-skilled and redundant, an itinerant laborer, with no protections or security. The method to do that was on line education, where the universities owned the professor’s curriculum, syllabus, his/her mental labor, and had the right to usurp that work and use whoever way it wished. The teacher became a cipher, no longer a person who the student could interact, but simply a marketing tool, which the administration could claim had the same capacity as living person.

    Of course it’s a lie, one that any thinking person would soon realize. But it didn’t matter, administrators could fulfill two mandates, control payroll and extend outreach. A professor could be denied tenure, or simply retire, their work no longer belongs to them, the admins make a profit, and more importantly, that huge savings goes into, you guessed it, more administrative overhead, and debt service. That’s why you’re seeing massive increase in two aspects which have nothing to do with delivering content, because it makes huge money for those that build the nonsense, and Wall Street institutions which create and invest in the debt. Without those pesky professors, who might ask why the hell are you wasting money on those that don’t teach, or do much at all, and idiotic construction projects, such as the Oregon’s building of the $250 million Matt Knight Areana, which is empty nearly 90% of the time, pretty much any protest would be left to the general public. Yeah, good luck with that.

    The point ultimately is that the unis are failing to deliver effective content at an affordable price. As the unis are currently situated, they’re not going to do so. Online education is promoted to do both, when they’re simply a way of making professors redundant and insecure, just as all of the other hired hands that make up the work force for American style capitalism….

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    charlie: Yes – Noble’s book saw a lot of stuff before everyone else did.

    I have to say that lately I’m particularly intrigued by one of the things you mention: The ability of administrators to spy on professors absolutely.

    All of that technology allows very close monitoring of everything: how much time the professor is putting into the course, what’s being said, etc., etc.

    The professor is never alone with her class – and not just because the administration is capable of watching every moment. The for-profit outfit the university has hired to set up and manage the course is another party to everything that goes on. As Princess Diana said of her marriage, it’s really crowded in there.

    And because the natural evolution of the professor’s relationship with her for-profit minder will be that she will feel more and more irrelevant relative to the minder (who after all is really the person “doing” – to call it something – the course), the professor will be in a state of mild, steady panic: She’s being clocked; she’d better do something… But what to do? Mindy at Pearson’s has got the whole gig covered. Mindy’s even managing the outsourcing of the professor’s grading to a drudge in India. What’s a professor to do??

  11. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Charlie, I’m thrilled to encounter another David Noble fan! In my too-frequent encounters with staff in my own college’s distance-education division, I make it a point to recommend they read two books: Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills and Bob Seidensticker’s Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change. I can assure you that none of these staff have ever acted on my suggestion; the idea that they might bone up on the history and philosophy and possible social consequences of what they do all day is utterly foreign to these technorati.

    Also, you’re spot-on about the intellectual property issue. At my own school, the distance-ed folks simply assumed from the get-go that the university did and should own the content of all the courses it delivered. Of course, faculty have traditionally owned their teaching materials, but this meant nothing to the distance division. I tried to explain some of the possible injustices engendered by the then-existing default policy: suppose we hired a new assistant professor, and that she dutifully created an online course (as we were and still are strongly encouraged to do), and that she was subsequently “non-retained.” Distance Ed would own all the course’s intellectual property — even though it was attained by the now-unemployed prof at her own considerable personal expense. We could hire an adjunct to teach the course; the course’s original author would be left with nothing but her student loan payments. She would have paid through the nose for all that knowledge and teaching experience, and we would have essentially stolen it.

    How, I would ask, can this possibly be justified?

    Answers from the Distance Ed folks typically took two forms:

    1.) “Huh? I don’t understand what you’re saying. This word, ‘justified,’ what does it mean?”

    2.) “We make big $$$ for the university, so piss off.”

    Fortunately our Faculty Senate came out of hibernation long enough to revise our IP policy to prevent the worst of these kinds of abuses. Now, an instructor only loses her rights to her course’s content if she’s accepted a monetary stipend for creating the course. This is still stupid and unfair, because the stipend only compensates her for the work of learning the LMS and putting her content into it; why that should give the university any rights to the academic content itself is beyond me.

    So anyway, the online world is rife not just with inferior education but with cretinism, dishonesty, and theft.

    While I’m on the topic of the general suckitude of the educational technorati, I’d like to mention the fiasco with the Los Angeles Unified Schools. You might have read about it: the district planned to purchase as much as $1 billion worth of iPads and Pearson software. This deal was stunningly mismanaged in any number of ways (Diane Ravitch, who has become my hero, has been all over it)–but what gets me most about it is a certain, what, snobbery? techno-managerial class solidarity? I mean, LA’s schools are falling apart. The city is full of unemployed workers, many of them with kids in those same schools. Maybe those moms and dads might appreciate a steady job doing repair and maintenance? Maybe that would be good for them, their families and children, and their neighborhoods and schools? Just maybe? But when the district finds itself in possession of a spare $1 billion, they fork it over to Apple and Pearson. Why use it to give kids a decent school and their parents a decent job?

    So now the kids will have iPads to show to their unemployed parents and use to take standardized tests in their dilapidated schools.

    Two rants in one day…. Sorry!

  12. JND Says:

    Dr. D —

    I laughed out loud when I read the phrase “moving the needle.” I take it that your administration was suckered by the same band of consulting thieves that ours was?

  13. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Most likely so, JND…. And “suckered” is right!

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE