And no, this isn’t a post about the latest dystopia, though I am watching/listening to Delicatessen while I type.

I found this article over at the University Business site:

According to a November 2007 Ambient Insight revised forecast, the US eLearning market is growing at 22%, with buyers demanding new types of technology*. These market dynamics are likely driven in part by the demand on educators to emphasize quality instruction, professional development, extensive access to varied curricula, accountability and a desire for cost reduction. These educational demands are closely aligned with new solutions online learning is finally ready to deliver.

Educational administrators are well warned to inform themselves about the possibilities of real-time collaboration, teaching, and professional development over the Internet. They should be actively concerned about the impact that online learning plays in the attraction and retention of students and staff, as well as the use of new tools to deliver a quality educational experience.

Students seek enrollment in the institution that can meet their needs, regardless of location. Through the use of online learning technologies, schools across the country need to acknowledge more competition for alternate delivery of quality instruction. If schools are not offering the latest tools for online classes, or using online learning to enrich the mix of curricula they are offering, they are officially behind the curve.

It strikes me that the author hasn’t decided what tone he’s going to use or what tack he’s going to take. If we’re “educators,” then why is the market driven by “buyers”? Either we should have students, or we should be salesmen. By slipping between the registers of economics and the ivory tower, is the author trying to be at once worldly and idealistic? Perhaps, but the final item in this sentence,

These market dynamics are likely driven in part by the demand on educators to emphasize quality instruction, professional development, extensive access to varied curricula, accountability and a desire for cost reduction.

gives the rhetorical pride of place to cost reduction and not quality instruction, so I think it’s safe to say that his real loyalties are to the market, not the academy.

We’re told that online learning is ready to take us—into the future! But why, then, does he immediately threaten administrators? Don’t university vice presidents know that all kinds of “possibilities” exist online? Granted, administrative posts aren’t in the teaching trenches, so it makes sense for the author to assume that they aren’t familiar with the hippest fads. But by couching this as a dire warning, there’s another shift of tone going on, one that appeals to the bottom-line mentality typical of the corporate manager and not to the quality-craftsmanship of the teacher-scholar. The bald warning is probably just the classic play of good advertising, meant to scare someone into buying something by insinuating that they’ll be left behind once others have made the smart decision. (It’s like the premise of a bad series of novels, ain’t it? Sorry, this has taken a turn for the dystopian after all.)

And now I have to put on my postmodern hat, at least long enough to take note of what’s being left out. Nowhere in the article is there any acknowledgment that online learning has been subject to criticism. And instead to claim—vaguely, switching to my logician’s hat for a moment (I’ve got a lot of hats), without any argument or evidence—that online learning can only “enrich” the educational experience makes this sound more and more like “University Business” plain and simple, and not education at all. Online learning may indeed be a progressive solution to many problems, but so far the only thing that seems clear is that it’s primarily out to “enrich” the bottom line—which, it must be admitted, is increasingly an important part of the “educational experience” of many administrators.

Strangely enough, I do find myself in agreement with the following sentence:

They should be actively concerned about the impact that online learning plays in the attraction and retention of students and staff, as well as the use of new tools to deliver a quality educational experience.

Exactly. The administration should be concerned about the “impact that online learning” will have. Specifically, they should be seriously considering whether classes that don’t already run on Powerpoint will translate effortlessly into internetese. After all, most professors who fall back on Powerpoint already post their slides online. But what about the discussion classes, like mine? It’s commonplace to complain that message boards are pale approximations of real discussion, with all sorts of drawbacks and limitations. And administrators already know that being able “to deliver a quality educational experience” hinges on actual rather than virtual contact with professors. That face-time is crucial. It probably isn’t cost-efficient for someone as highly-paid as I am (please note the sarcasm) to sit around chatting with my students. But that’s the only way that really works to address their specific questions, to learn something about them as human beings, to loan them books that aren’t in the library or have a conversation about the Bach you have playing in the office when they come in.

And speaking of cost efficiency, I very much doubt that many alumni return, checkbook in hand, with fond memories of how, way back when they were wee students, their course message boards were expeditiously handled or the administration was especially clever in its cost-cutting measures. On the other hand, last spring one of our philosophy professors retired after thirty years. Alums flooded the campus. There was an auction of memorabilia, including clothes (his fashion sense was famously bad). Someone paid $300 for his ratty jacket and immediately handed it back to him. We’re looking for a provost right now. If a candidate comes to interview and tells me a story about how they inspired that kind of loyalty as an administrator, I’ll personally beg the president to hire them.

It’s that sense of teaching as a craft and a personal connection, not a science or a business, that drives a university like mine to make a serious effort to ensure that its professors hold and keep office hours. Personal interaction isn’t cheap: price around for therapy or someone to coach a sports team. And you’ll note that not many football coaches are being threatened with obsolete dinosaurdom if they don’t embrace the latest technology. Well, perhaps—steroids are a technology, I suppose, in which case this isn’t the finest comparison. But barring steroids and some low-tech headsets, coaches are still standing on the sidelines yelling at the players and grinding their teeth just like Knute Rockne did 75 years ago.

I suppose I would have to rethink much of what I’ve written here if computers made it possible for me to hold forty office hours per week, while still teaching and serving on committees and even writing the occasional article. But I’m pretty certain that the technology being hawked by this article isn’t engineered with this outcome in mind.

The final paragraph begins with another statement that I agree with: students will go to the school that best meets their needs, regardless of location. How else to explain the mass-migration that goes on at the beginning of each term? Students will go to the best schools, if they can. I think it’s safe to assume that a student who can get into Harvard is going to go to Harvard, or if cost-cutting is an issue, to their flagship state university; they’re not going to live at home with mom and dad because their local community college has really cheap online classes. So we might profitably ask who these online classes are aimed at? The article doesn’t even raise the question. Students in the future, I suppose. And the circularity of the second sentence in the final paragraph marks another significant question: schools should acknowledge, “through the use of online learning technologies,” that they are ready for the fierce competition among schools with…online learning technologies. This is not a message meant for anyone too poor to own a computer or pay for a fast internet connection, apparently. Technology is for those who can afford it–who, we’ve already established, are going off to Harvard or UC San Diego or Clemson if they can. So, again, who is this technology for? Community colleges have a hard time moving too many classes online for precisely this reason. It’s possible to check email and Myspace on the computers at the public library, but a lot more difficult to complete serious online exercises during a fifteen-minute slot at the terminal.

I’m having a hard time finding the continuity here. The author can’t make up his mind whether he’s threatening me (don’t get left in the cold!), admonishing me (don’t be an ignorant rube!), or insulting me (don’t be such a Luddite!). Or whether all this new technology is for the rich or the poor. It seems he thinks it’s both. Either he’s dodging and weaving, trying to sell me something that ultimately has a lot of flaws—or, he isn’t conscious of these shifts in tone at all, in which case he probably should’ve taken English 101 from someone like me in an actual classroom.

So, internets: what don’t I get about online learning? Because this argument isn’t really doing it for me.

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