Sunday, September 21, 2014

We Don't Need No (Higher) Education

We don't need no thought control:
Consider the state of higher education today. Since the late 1970s, the total of poorly paid untenured and contingent faculty has far outstripped the number of tenured faculty on college campuses all over the world and now accounts for roughly 76 % of faculty in U.S. higher education.

The shrinking number of tenured academics has been paralleled by a growing number of very well-paid administration positions, filled by MBAs or Educational Administration doctorates who have spent little or no time in the actual educational trenches. The current corporate administrative pattern emphasizes a profit model of efficiency, cost control, and knowledge delivery, which is fundamentally different from the academic and pedagogical model of knowledge creation, a messy, individualistic but often life-changing process. This new emphasis is evident in the constant rise of tuition (going to grandiose building projects and bloated administrative salaries mirroring the corporate world), increasing demands for the quantification and standardization of instruction, larger class sizes, and the devaluing of educators’ professionalism, expertise, mentoring, innovative pedagogy, and the kind of student-centered, highly personalized learning opportunities I had at my small liberal arts college in the 1980s.

If these trends continue unchecked, the educational “opportunities” I and many other educators foresee will look like something out of that science fiction dystopia. For the sake of efficiency and the bottom line, students will be “educated” (although it will be more like indoctrination with facts than true education) en masse, remotely, in MOOCs (massive online open courses) by a few “star” academics who record their lectures and require the purchase of very expensive texts and materials from a few monopolistic academic publishers. Low-salaried “tutors” (today’s adjuncts with Master’s degrees and doctorates) will be standing by at what amounts to a call center with scripted responses to students’ questions. There will be little or no discussion of the material, little opportunity to interact with other students, the professor, or even ideas that are not in the book or online, and virtually no support for struggling students beyond a disembodied voice or image on a screen. This is the logical extension of the model of knowledge delivery vs. knowledge creation, which requires teacher-student interaction, argument, discussion, questioning, practice, and widely varied pedagogical methods—teaching the student, not the material.

If this sounds far-fetched, you should know that one attendee at the recent Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference reported that her Canadian college, Athabasca University, is already in the process of moving its adjunct instructors into that call center, hiring non-academic operators to determine whether student questions are administrative or academic and route them accordingly, and requiring its “tutors” to use a script penned by the textbook publisher. Remember the last time you called tech support and got an offshore technician who insisted on running through the entire customer-service script, even though you’ve already tried everything suggested? Imagine this as your educational experience. Just as bad, MIT and Harvard have already formed a company called EdX to provide machine grading of academic essays. Not for Harvard or MIT, of course. Machine grading, though possibly cost-saving, would lead to a “beating the machine” or “gaming the system” mentality of teaching to the test rather than real learning, the kind of instruction we see in test prep centers for the college boards. I’m sure the testing companies will jump on that opportunity too.

Inevitably, this sets up a two-tier system of education: the intimate, personalized educational experience for those who can afford a “traditional” education, and the cheaper, technology-heavy/professor-light so-called education of the masses.
A bit sensational but an interesting article, to say the least.


pseudotsuga said...

I detect some dark sarcasm in the classroom...

PeggyU said...

I don't personally see anything wrong with the en masse education approach, as long as the student is self-motivated and aware of the limitations. If it keeps the cost down and the schedule flexible, open-source classes allow access to education which might otherwise be difficult to obtain. Classes through Coursera, for example, do allow interaction with other students and teachers. The interaction may be limited and may not stimulate the depth of discussion this author cites as a casualty of the delivery mechanism. But, honestly, I don't recall engaging in any particularly epiphanous conversations in the classes I took in college. I did visit some professors during their office hours to get clarification on a concept or an assignment from time to time. However, it seems to me that that opportunity still exists, if you know how to locate an authority who can help. In my experience, there is no such thing as an academic who will withhold information simply because you didn't pay for a class. Too few people ever really attempt to engage them in earnest conversation, and when you do ... you'd better have some time to burn because it's hard to find the "off" switch! It is just human behavior to be flattered by someone who takes an interest in your interests and who considers you enough of an expert to seek out your opinion.

The beauty of it is, in this day and age it is easier to consult more than one expert or information source. I don't see that as being dangerous to learning, but rather as allowing students who are driven and independent an easier chance at a more "complete" education, if you will.

Lab classes, art classes, or any class where you need expensive tools or well-supervised hands-on involvement obviously can't be taught this way, and some physical facilities will still be needed. I don't see any way around that, other than apprenticeships which are pretty often hard to come by.