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This Week’s Funniest Headline . . .

May 3rd, 2013 - 12:00 pm

. . .  comes from the New York Times.  Professors at San Jose State Criticize Online Courses.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Someone told me the story that Larry Ellison, genius loci of Oracle Corporation, was slumming recently. He was, the story goes, giving a talk at a big meeting of the American Association of University Professors, the guild organization that invigilates the protectionist rules that keep the professoriate in their tenured luxury.  Ellison began with a little flattery. Teachers, he said, are one of the most important assets of our society. Applause and appreciative murmurs.  Not only are teachers important, he said they are also drastically underpaid. Even more appreciative applause and scattered “Here, heres.” In fact, quoth this business giant, I think teachers are so important that they ought to be paid at least a $1 million a year. A standing ovation: who knew that someone from corporate America could be so  insightful?  Unfortunately, Ellison concluded, I’m only going to need about 100 of you. A shocked silence greeted that announcement. Whatever could he mean, wondered the assembled multitude as they looked about at the teeming mass of pseudo-independent thinkers that filled the room.  Whatever could could he mean?

We all know what he meant.  The technological tsunami that is online education is poised to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.

But what’s funny about the Times’s story is not so much the state of denial exhibited by the faculty at that educational backwater in California (San Jose State?), but the reasons given for their criticism. “The philosophy department,” the Times reports,  “sent Dr. Sandel [a prominent Harvard prof. whose course is being offered free and for nothing online] an open letter asserting that such courses, designed by elite universities and widely licensed by others, would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities.”  Italics are mine.  Online courses are dangerous because they would “compromise the quality of education” and “stifle diverse viewpoints.”  Ha, ha, ha. As if “the quality of education” and genuine diversity were features of most colleges and universities these days.  No, as the recent report from the National Association of Scholars about  Bowdoin College has shown, the American educational establishment, despite its constant talk about diversity, is a stunningly conformist and intellectually un-diverse environment.

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Top Rated Comments   
The late Dr. Alice Sheldon, writing as “James Tiptree, Jr.,” observed that motivation is field-like: it affects all susceptible elements in the same way. These professors, supposedly so averse to producing “products” that will be used to replace them, will exhibit little cohesion as offers mount for them to do exactly that. More, the earliest defectors will reap the greatest rewards, and the professors know it.

The terrible deterioration of classroom education, coupled to the advancing technologies of the Web and programmed instruction, have forced us to this pass. Perhaps there will be drawbacks in socialization, though, given how badly the schools do at inculcating civilized behavioral norms, that’s hard for me to see. At any rate, the homeschoolers have demonstrated that there’s no necessary connection between classroom education and good socialization. More, the fewer of our young adults we send to traditional colleges and universities, the slower our current crop of endemic diseases -- venereal, intellectual, and social -- will spread.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
One overlooked advantage of online courses: it is the cheapest method of flunking out students who are unprepared, uninterested and unwilling to work. This runs to about 35-45% according to various studies.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (30)
All Comments   (30)
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This open letter put me to mind of the arguments against the nickelodeon a century ago. The complaints are growing very similar. We're already seeing the immigrant/lower classes arguments. Soon we'll have the moral decay arguments, though oddly this time the online learning will keep the student away from the licentiousness of the college campus.

But many are correct, the filming of lectures is not as good as being in the audience of the live performance. Presuming the professor is on his game for the matinee that day. But then viewing a film of a stage performance is not as enjoyable as seeing it live.

But movies are not simply films of plays, they became something different with new innovators using the medium to offer a different, sometimes better, product. It is only a matter of time before some innovator, probably not a current famous professor, starts using the medium for more than replicating the classroom online. Khan Academy has made some progress by taking the camera off the speaker.

Look for the real innovation to be driven by the 3rd world where their is a hunger for learning and a deficit of lecture-method induced "school helplessness"(1). Although with the growing home schooling more and more students are avoiding the inculcation into passive learning. I would expect to see more and more "study group learning" with the teacher more coach than headliner.




1 "In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks."
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've been hearing a lot of "Fur Elise" and "Rondo alla Turca" lately, two of the teaching tunes on a keyboard we got for $100 on Craigslist. My seven-year-old daughter also plays these tunes on a 1930-era children's pump organ, just to show she can do them without electronic assistance. My only complaint is that she doesn't want to learn to read sheet music -- who needs it when the correct keys light up for you?

It's as if millions of piano tutors cried out in terror, and then fell silent.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
This article put me in mind of an interview on one of the Sunday morning shows with Randi Weingarten. She had her panties in a bunch over the fact that there is a big push in education for what is referred to as "Core" education. Basically, it is a test for students to determine if they had a good grounding in the basics of their education and if their teachers were performing well. She had the gaul to say that she didn't agree with standardized testing in this case because it was recent and the teachers didn't have the time to get themselves up to speed on what would be in the test. My immediate thought was what the hell were you doing for the last 40 some odd years Randi?? You need extra time to teach the students the basics? Really?! Good dedicated teachers are worth their weight in gold, but sadly, most of them are more concerned with tenure than teaching. Like all union supported jobs, mediocrity is fostered rather than excellence.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
It remains to be seen how the degree granting institutions and their guardian, the accreditation powers, react to the idea of educating the bulk of students online at the expanse of the education establishment.

Er, maybe the answer is hidden in that sentence, isn't it?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
More of less.
LOL!
Do to my early 60's engineering education I can't relate this disaster except my experience with the results.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I feel like the last sucker. I have two teenage children that will go to traditional universities in the coming years, making me a lot poorer and them only slightly better educated. I wish this tsunami would hit already. Societal pressure to attend a four year college is massive, and the alternatives aren't quite ready for prime time.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
As amusing as it may be to contemplate the implosion of overwhelmingly leftist academia, it should be noted that academics have a weapon to keep their status that the makers of buggywhips lacked: Academics control *certification* of degree-conferring programs, and the professional organizations that PhD's routinely join.

I would be astonished if we didn't see the Society of Professional Meteorologists (to make up an example) pass a rule that one could only be admitted if one had a degree from a certified program. Voila, problem of on-line competition solved.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The late Dr. Alice Sheldon, writing as “James Tiptree, Jr.,” observed that motivation is field-like: it affects all susceptible elements in the same way. These professors, supposedly so averse to producing “products” that will be used to replace them, will exhibit little cohesion as offers mount for them to do exactly that. More, the earliest defectors will reap the greatest rewards, and the professors know it.

The terrible deterioration of classroom education, coupled to the advancing technologies of the Web and programmed instruction, have forced us to this pass. Perhaps there will be drawbacks in socialization, though, given how badly the schools do at inculcating civilized behavioral norms, that’s hard for me to see. At any rate, the homeschoolers have demonstrated that there’s no necessary connection between classroom education and good socialization. More, the fewer of our young adults we send to traditional colleges and universities, the slower our current crop of endemic diseases -- venereal, intellectual, and social -- will spread.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a professor who has taught both online and face to face course, I disagree with Mr. Kimball's assessment on the coming tsunami.

First, let me say that I agree with the assessment about ideological inbreeding and a tyrannical need for conformity. As a Christian conservative at a public university, I can attest to the stunning lack of diversity among my fellow members of the faculity.

Now, as to online replacing face to face courses completely, I have a few objections based on my experience. If you plan to offer an online course that is worth its salt then there are some issue you will face.

1. Online education is not for everyone. Some kids do well but they have to be self starters and extremely disciplined to log in each week and complete the assignments. Unlike a face to face course, you have to establish a class presence and not merely attend. In my experience, roughly 20% of the people registered for a course will simply disappear.

2. Online course requires a lot more work for the professor. Instead of three hours of lecture and discussion each week, the professor now has to login to the class and read all the submissions. If you want quality discussion and a grade based on content rather than just quantity, you will have to monitor the discussion and interact with the students. Most online platforms allow you to assess the number of times a student contributes or the amount a student contributes but it takes a live person to assess quality. This requires more time than a face to face class but universities usually pay less for teaching the online course.

3. As a professor in an online course, I miss the face to face interaction. A good lecturer can look at a class and see who is getting it and who is confused. You can also teach to the class in the moment but shifting the discussion to cover points raised and avenues that open up for discussion. In an online course, you are always responding after the fact and you lose the moment. To counter that you have to have the class all online at the same time, which of course costs you the flexibility of having it online.

4. Standardized lectures cost you both diversity and interaction. Do we really want everyone in the United States learning from the liberal at Harvard? Do we really want everyone using Howard Zinn as their text of choice?

5. Some things cannot simply be taught online. Teaching someone to write requires interaction and one on one direction. Upper level courses depend on debate and interaction amongst the teacher and the peers. Online courses hinder that more than they help it.

I see potential in online classes. I see their usefulness. But I do not see them replacing the traditional university. The university has failed us because liberalism has taken over and stifled intellectualism. We need to think of alternative paths to education. Online education may be a part of the solution but it is not the solution.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've taught chemistry in both a university and community college setting, and students who take online courses miss out on the skills involved in actual lab work, as well as some of the interaction that comes with being face to face.

I fully support online education for general or introductory classes. However, I suffered a deficit in my lab skills due to skipping a course with AP credit. While I had the knowledge, I could not execute the techniques. I was able to catch up in later courses, but without the skills that come with lab work, science degrees will be less valuable.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a student, I agree. In the few online classes I have taken as I work toward my MA, I missed the interaction that helps me fully understand a concept. Recorded lecture (which rarely happened in my classes), reading on my own, and incidental "conversation" postings are not the same learning experience as interactive discussion in a classroom. There is a great deal to be gained from that discussion that doesn't translate well to the online classes I have experienced.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good post, Prof. Definitely some things to think about.

From the dim and distant past I recall in my university education, oh, long about 1965 or so, I bought a book using a programmed learning technique in chemistry. I found it easy to follow, and the answers the student gave to the questions were either wrong or right, no "partial credit". I learned a lot of freshmen chemistry in a weekend.

Based on that experience I have always believed that math and science could be taught online but the humanities might just need a real live teacher in a class room. Just my experience.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks. There may well be something to the distinction you drew between the humanities and math and science.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Au contraire:
1) Online peer pressure and socialization can be far grater than that in the analog world because everything is visible. You may have a higher drop out rate, but those would likely be the C student who were just getting passed along anyway.
2. Online teaching would be recorded, so teachers would only have to deliver the lecture once. Much of the testing could be automated. Essay grading would not require any incremental time.
3. Sure the face to face interaction is enjoyable, but is it worth the cost? I find Sandel's lectures engrossing even though I don't have any interaction with him. If we got down to the 100 best professors, their ability to engage would transcend the limitations of the medium.
4. There isn't diversity today. Easier to correct fewer course, and offer scalable alternatives, rather than trying to fix every class room in America.
5. This is your opinion. There seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Scalable distribution of education will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of education. There were many wonderful things about the horse-drawn carriage (now I have to buy fertilizer), the outhouse (the bracing walk in the middle of the night) , carrying water in buckets from rivers (look at my delts), the washboard (oh the music you could make), and so on. We are seeing the death of medieval educational methods developed because books were too expexpensive for an individual to own - about time!
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
1. Online peer pressure and socialization is usually greater only when the people involved have a standard form of contact - i.e. high school student is bullied by another high school student from the same high school online. Here we are talking about complete strangers who will have no interaction other than in an online environment. The outcome in that type of environment is not always a positive one. Plus, not everything is visible.

2. Recorded lectures are standardized and thus not interactive between the professor and the student. Essay grading - if done correctly - always requires more time. I did not become a professor to be a grader. I grade because I am a professor and it is part of the teaching process. Remove the teaching aspect and you can find someone else.

3. I think it is worth the cost especially when the online education has proven that it cannot reach a certain percentage of those who register for the course.

4. There is no guarantee that online courses will be any more diversified.

5. Then present evidence to the contrary.

No evidence exists that online education will increase effectiveness or efficiency. Online education is too new to really understand the impact it will have on education, post secondary education, and post graduate education.

By the way, the Socratic method of teaching dates back to ancient Greece. The university itself may date from the Middle Ages but the teaching concept it fosters goes back to the beginnings of Western Civilization.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem I have with forced diversity is that it is going against the grain of reality. That reality is that the racial make up of any given thing, once institutional racism is removed, is largely an accidental expression of culture.

The NBA is maybe 80% black; that proves barriers are gone. No one social-engineered the NBA and got in bidding wars for 12 black guys. The idea is insane. It's 2013 and this stuff is simply going to have to work itself out.

Black folks are only 14% of the populace; they can't be everywhere at once, and then there's the cultural value system attached to such a culture, which defines itself by default by race. These things are no one's racism.

The worst part is that, once people start valuing people by race, that can be turned around into devaluing them. This is a language we're talking about here, and it has no moral compass, eyes or brain to direct it once it's basic principles are set loose. The logic that sets a black man on a pedestal can also set him in a ditch.

I'm thinking of a black comedy where Nazi Germany bitterly fought competitions over the less than 1% Jews to honor them rather than kill them. "Move here, come to this school." The language one uses to honor a thing can also kill a thing.

It is dangerous to indulge in such language. It is dangerous because you might not only eventually put that skin in danger, but because, in the meantime, you may be rewarding failure. In that scenario, everything collapses. Because we are in effect institutionalizing racism backwards. In that situation, it can come in the back door more easily than if we simply let things take their own course. I see trouble ahead in this country.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The printing Press changed the world providing knowledge and information on a mass scale, an avenue for people to educate themselves instead of relying on religious leaders and monarchies. When people grasped Liberty and Freedom as tangibles, they overthrew chains of Church and Royal bloodlines.
The Internet is the next leap in education, information and knowledge on a mass scale electronically. In the near future an individual in rural Africa or Asia will have access to higher level learning, able to educate themselves in Chemistry, Physics, or any other subject they want. The stranglehold of universities will be broken.
There will be many stumbles along the way, just as with effects of printing press. But in the end it will create a global middle class and wealth on a scale we cannot imagine.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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