Although normally a pretty upbeat and optimistic person, I end a lot of my different talks these days with a pretty scary, even dystopic slide: "IF WE PROFS CAN BE REPLACED BY A COMPUTER SCREEN, WE SHOULD BE.”
That gets people’s attention. And it makes people mad. My meaning is often misunderstood at first—and that’s what I want. I want profs in the audience to be outraged that I’m saying they can be replaced by a computer screen. And, if they think they are not replaceable by a computer screen, I want them to articulate why.
If they can make a good case for what they add, then my conditional statement is answered negatively: No, I cannot be replaced by a computer screen because of . . . Making that case accurately and persuasively (to the public, to legislators, to donors, and mostly to our students) is the single most important thing any professor can do because, if we don’t, it will be made for us. And we won't like the result.
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At the end of this post, I'll include some positive ideas for what we can do to address the issues of higher education reform, on an individual classroom level and on a larger institutional one. I'll include a few examples and some links. But most of this blog explains the "why we'll be replaced by a computer screen" part of this conditional. To simply claim "online education is bad" does not help make a case. This is an attempt to add some texture and depth to the conversation.
There are at least four reasons why, now, a lot of attention is being paid to replacing profs with computer screens.
(1) Too many students worldwide want to go to college to be able to accommodate them all. This is one of the valid and important reasons for Massive Online Open Education. There is simply no way that existing institutions of higher education worldwide are designed to meet the needs of millions of people who need the advanced skills, training, and complex thinking that higher education offers and that our digital age demands. The worldwide baby boom makes the numbers too larger and current costs make education prohibitive for millions of potential students. MOOCs could (and this is a provisional, the jury is still out) could help address a world-wide educational shortage that many of us have been predicting for decades. In India, for example, of the 500,000 students qualified to take the entrance exams for the national system of Indian Institutes of Technology, only 2% get in. Scores for many of the rejected students gain them admittance into Ivy League schools in America. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/world/asia/squeezed-out-in-india-students-turn-to-united-states.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 But this is only an option for the top-scoring students and the wealthiest ones. China’s top university, Peking University, has a .5 percent acceptance rate (compare that to Harvard’s 5.9 percent acceptance rate). ( http:// http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/world/asia/burden-of-chinas-college-entrance-test-sets-off-wide-debate.html?pagewanted=all ) Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs) is partly designed for a worldwide community of qualified students desperate for a higher education but to whom it is not available in other forms. For those students, a computer screen offers hope of a college degree they have no chance of obtaining otherwise.
MOOCs have the potential (if we do it well) for making higher education available globally to those who cannot afford it. In this particular sense, MOOCs are not a threat to conventional U.S. brick-and-mortar education. They offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits. Is it the best form? Is it truly interactive? Does it decenter learning in the way contributive knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia do or does it simply reinforce the hegemony of elite professors at elite U.S. schools? Those are all valid but different questions we need to be asking.
(2) College in the U.S. costs too much. There is some truth and then a lot of hype about how MOOCs will "solve" the problem of education in the U.S. costing too much. To date, it is hard to see how MOOCs will do anything to reduce the cost of U.S. education although, implicitly, that is what is being promised. Far too much of the MOOC conversation mixes apples and oranges. We need to be careful to separate out the different reasons for the high cost of higher education today. For public universities, a good part (but not the whole) of the reason for exploding and prohibitive tuition costs is we’re no longer willing to subsidize public education as much as we once were as a society. This is true for K-12 as it is for higher education. Lower taxes mean less money for education. But lower support rates for public education are not the only reason for high costs. We also have, since World War II, transferred research costs from industry to the federal goverment and to higher education. Much of higher education is built on research cost recovery. As federal dollars dwindle, higher education is left with more and more of the bill for research efforts, especially in basic research, that, in the end, are necessary to a technological society and an expanding economy. Those costs have been defrayed by higher tuitions. In addition, good education is a craft and is a very expensive proposition and, in the U.S., elite private education costs a lot because expectations for what it provides (from research and travel oppotrunities to amenities to sports teams) are at an all-time high. People complain about the cost of private universities, but the waiting lists for elite private high schools that feed into elite private universities is longer than ever and tuition at the top ones is just about the same as at elite universities, in the 30K+ range, even without the whole apparatus of the research university. http://observer.com/2011/11/the-2011-private-school-power-players/ The tuition cost of elite colleges is actually rising less or comparable to other elite services for the 1% (tax lawyers, hedge fund managers, country club fees, plastic surgeons, orthodontists). However, for the rest of us, college costs too much. MOOCs are, at present (but probably not for long), a way around those costs for some people who cannot afford to go to college. Whether a degree from a MOOC will yield the same lifelong employment benefits as a degree from brick-and-mortar college is yet to be determined. And sometimes the education on line is of abyssmal quality--but so is some face to face education.
College in the U.S. costs too much for many people--and sometimes it is well worth it, and sometimes not: Is online education as satisfying as taking a class face to face? Depends on the class. I loved my HTML5 class from Udacity. And the individualized machine-generated feedback in the statistics class offered by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative was superb and inspiring. Here’s an open secret: many doctoral students enroll in the statistics courses required by their programs, courses taught by dull and uninspiring lecturers, but then take the free OLI statistics course, which is strategic and problem-based and graduated to one’s skills. They then ace the final exam in their actual program (the one for which they pay tuition). The prof thinks he’s a genius, but he’s been replaced by a computer screen. But what about the humanities, you might say. They cannot be replaced by a computer screen. Well, a busy university-based psychiatrist friend swears by the “Difficult Poetry” MOOC he is taking for personal pleasure, writing the papers, offering feedback back on papers by his peers. It makes the morning commute sail by. If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be. We need to acknowledge that, maybe even embrace it, work with the machine not, in knee-jerk fashion, against it. In certain circumstances, with certain kinds of learning, including integration of ubiquitous learning into the routines of our everyday lives, online education can be transformative.
(3) Online education promises to be lucrative to for-profit institutions. Okay, this really worries me. One of the prime motivators for the MOOC conversation right now is that a lot of investors are interested in it---and not for valid educational reasons and not for reasons of quality and experiment and interactivity but because it is seen as the next frontier of high-yield (and often goverment subsidized) investment, the way prisons were in the 1990s. Another reason we profs should be worried, very worried, is that, right now, Forbes and lots of other business venues are convinced that online education is the next rich investment area.
Many existing for-profits, online and face-to-face, have already used Pell grants to their advantage. But for-profits have been under a lot of scrutiny lately from the Obama administration and some investors think MOOCs might be the next big thing, now that for-profits are being regulated and watched scrupulously. The Harkin Commission on for-profits reveals stunning, damning numbers. There’s been pushback on those by for-profits, but not any significant refutation. As a rule, they cost more than public education, result in more debt, and have a lower graduate rate. Yet our taxes supported $5.4 billion in Federal Pell grants for public institutions but a whopping $7.5 billion to for-profit colleges. http://news.yahoo.com/telling-numbers-profit-colleges-cant-defend-164223522--finance.html Because the Obama administration is tightening rules on how tax dollars go to for-profits, many investors are looking next at online education. Those are the same folks who finance political campaigns. They have power. They have pull. If we do not make the case for what we do to the public, we will be replaced by computer screens. Because there is a lot of effort in that direction from powerful sectors. But even for-profits exist for one valid reason: many of the kinds of courses offered by for-profit universities are not now offered by universities, colleges, or community colleges. Or they are offered but community colleges cannot accept all those who would like to take them. No matter how good a business proposition, no matter how persuasive their recruiters (and for-profits spend an outsized amount on publicity and recruitment), for-profits would not exist if students could get the same education for the same many elsewhere. In many cases, they cannot. Many of the newest fields (such as an array of Web design and data-base courses that most university-based Computer Science departments consider beneath them) and the fields where there is a crucial job shortage (such as home health care) simply are not offered or available at public universities. If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.
(4) Our current educational system (kindergarten through professional school) is outmoded. I believe the principal reason that we profs need to articulate what we do well and why we do it is because, in many cases, we are not very convincing and we need to “heal ourselves.” By that I mean, there are lots of bad and scary external reasons we will be replaced by online education and for-profits if we do not articulate our mission well, but the scariest is internal, not external. We have a crazy, indefensible system of often senseless and disconnected distribution requirements; we have rigid majors and minors which serve the professional careers of lots of distinguished professors but often are not current and do not prepare students for their futures instead of our past; we tend to do a very poor job of helping students learn how to learn (a complex skill demanded by a world of rapid change where, according to the U. S. Department of Labor Statistics, Americans now change careers—not jobs but careers—four to six times); we often have students work in collaborative teams (including in labs), but rarely spend time on the kind of management training that, in the business world, we know collaboration demands; we often cut costs by lecturing to massive numbers of students even though we know that, although the best lectures can be inspiring, even those have a very low retention or applicability rate; and we have a ridiculous form of assessment (the multiple choice test) that undermines a lot of the platitudes we espouse about individualized face-to-face learning. (For an excellent adaptation of the multiple choice test to better learning, see Jonathan Sterne’s ingenious workaround: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/multiple-choice-exam-theory/45275 ) I know English Departments that have lost 50% of their majors and have responded by making their majors even less relevant, more requirement-bound than before. You can look at the catalog and have no idea the Internet was ever invented. On the other hand, I know Computer Science departments that also act as if the Internet hasn’t been invented.
If we can be replaced by a form of education more suited to the real needs of students in 2013, we should be. And I don’t just mean technical skills but social and intellectual and crosscultural, creative, inspiring interactive learning for lifelong success in any and every field.
I believe all educational is vocational. It is the responsibility of educators in every field to take seriously their role in supporting students in their quest for their vocation. A “vocation” is a “call, a summons” and Wikipedia defines it as “an occupation to which a person is specially drawn and to which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified.” It should be my job as an educator to do everything I can to help my students to a satisfying, socially-constructive, and fulfilling vocation.
Unfortunately, the organization of most universities has, traditionally, been about my vocation as a professor, not my students'. One positive benefit I see from the exponential rise of for-profits and from MOOCs is that it does make us justify and explain what we do and how we do it. That means, more and more of us who care about teaching are finding that our universities, too, are placing increasing emphasis on that component of our contribution. But we still have far, far to go in transforming the scattered requirements and the sometimes thoughtless-pedagogy that organizes university teaching on a macro- and micro- level, on the level of requirements to graduation and on the level of how we teach in individual classes.
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Because this is a pretty negative piece, I want to end with a positive. All around me, I find amazing, truly amazing, professors and amazing universities (not all of them top-ranked), that are experimenting with new ways of organizing curricula and new modes of teaching. These are individuals, groups, networks (like the 10, 000 people now on hastac.org), institutions, and organizations (MLA, for goodness sakes, is a leader here!) that everyday show not only that universities and professors cannot be replaced by computer screens but, indeed, one function we serve is to help our students (and one another) navigate the exciting and perilous new worlds of being present and represented online in a new form of interactive, contributive, connected global virtual and actual culture. The "hybrid pedagogy" (yes, that's a shout out to our friends at Hybrid Pedagogy) of our lives means that, face to face, we can strategize the best new ways of learning, sharing our knowledge, and having an impact in the world beyond the university.
I have spent the last 18 months almost constantly on the road, visiting schools, universities, colleges, community colleges, for-profits (there are some good ones, some bad), organizations, science centers, humanities centers, corporations, nonprofits, and departments of education around the world. To list every great person, course, program, center, or institution I've encountered would take days, maybe weeks. It's inspiring. All of them understand the new challenges of living in a connected interactive age. None of them is replaceable by a simple computer screen. All are taking seriously the challenge of teaching to the future, not to the professoriate's past.
At Carroll University in Wisconsin, for example, I was excited to find that “culture” and “cross culture awareness” have been embedded into the design of all courses, from freshman composition to the array of health and medicine courses that are the hallmark of that university. Its enrollments are rising while other schools in the area are falling, and I wonder if it isn’t because it has found the key to the arbitrary and self-defeating divide between STEM and society (as if science and technology can ever be practiced without an awareness of cultural imperatives, histories, traditions, and prejudices). And I have to admit that I am very proud, myself, to teach at a university that offers many different ways for students to engage research, to apply what they learn in class in real world settings, and that rewards teaching as well as publication. Lots do. We have to do a far better job of showing what and how not only to the public and to parents and donors—but to the students themselves and to one another.
If you are doing something exciting in your classes or at your university, I hope you will let us know. We need to share this information.
In the meantime, here are some links to some of the collaborative, connected, peer-to-peer methods I’m trying out in my classes, some of them adapted from management training workshops I've been part of to intellectual collaboration in the classroom:
Guidelines for Peer-to-Peer Feedback: http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/12/29/how-do-you-encourage-peer-feedback-group-projects-heres-my-draft-bad
Guidelines for In Class Public Student Blogging: http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/11/30/guidelines-public-student-class-blogs-ethics-legalities-ferpa-and-mo
Sample Contract for Contract Grading: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B0P_OrPa9PnxZFFNYzdLOVNmQVE/edit
And the ongoing public blog our students are contributing to the class I’m co-teaching with Dan Ariely, “Surprise Endings: Literature and Social History.” https://sites.duke.edu/english390-5_01_s2013/
Join us! And see what happens over the course of the semester. We’ve designed this class as a “Meta-MOOC,” a class about what and how one would take content and turn it into a public online course. The students are in charge, thinking about what they think an education is, how they can turn content into learning, and how they might assess the result. We hope you will contribute. We hope you will participate in this journey.
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 10,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change. Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when www.hastac.org moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. She is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net . The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 : http://tinyurl.com/bqquoaz