Cross posted with my personal site rebeccalynneharris.org
Let me preface by saying I don’t really want to talk about MOOCs. The conversation about MOOCs is too polarizing, as Cathy Davidson recently articulated, and it seems to me that the focus on MOOCs is hyperbolic as well. Either MOOCs will save higher education or they mark the bitter, bitter end of the academy as we know it. I have a sneaking suspicion that neither of these scenarios will come to pass, so instead of talking about MOOCs, I’m going to talk about teachers and professors.
I am a professor and a teacher; I think one should be both. Every day in preparation for my writing classes, I plan lessons, put together handouts and activities, hack around the required textbook, read low-stakes micro assignments, review discussion posts, hold office hours, conference with students, and grade what feels like the ever-growing and never-ending stack of essays naturally produced by five writing courses over the semester. I imagine that my experience is not unique among most of the people teaching outside the tenure-track at Research I institutions. Most of the people who teach college in the US are probably very much like me, teaching anywhere from four to six classes every semester, either as full-time faculty or as adjuncts. The bulk of us who are employed under these circumstances are also excellent teachers who care deeply about our students, their capacity to think critically, and their ability to write.
Most of us who are employed under these circumstances also have to meet stringent state and campus requirements. For example, my syllabus contains standard language for the first five items and must include the weight and length of assignments, as well as the readings and topic schedule for the entire semester. My students must have this information on the first day of class. Most of us under these circumstances, whether full-time or adjuncts, also have a common textbook adoption that is used in all writing courses in order to ensure consistency across sections and professors, consistency that can be measured and turned into “data driven assessments.” Under all of these requirements, the great majority of us are still excellent teachers. We are creative, we find ways to bend the rules, to engage students, and incorporate technology in smart ways that serve our student populations and at the same time guarantee that we meet the letter of the law.
The populations we serve at regional state institutions and community or junior colleges by and large do not come from wealthy backgrounds or from high schools that rigorously prepare students for college. These are the students the majority of us are teaching. We’re finding ways to teach critical thinking skills, empower students to have confidence in their own abilities to learn and to teach, and help them when they make mistakes. These students, no less than the students at elite private or R1 public universities, are entitled to our care and to the one-on-one mentorship of their faculty. These students who might never have thought they could go to college, or who are dual enrolled looking towards a larger four year school, or who are returning for a second career, or are the first in their families to go to college deserve the same valuable (virtual or physical) classroom time and experience as their peers.
We often hear that education is in crisis, that we have to change to meet the demands of the 21st century student, that if we do not change they’ll replace us all with C-3PO style droids, and maybe that’s true. I purposefully exaggerate here because from where I’m sitting, as a regular old professor and classroom teacher, I really do not see evidence of this so-called “crisis” I keep reading about. Sure, we have funding problems and those problems are difficult and unlikely to go away. We have problems with an overly intrusive state legislature more interested in “data driven assessment” and surveillance than they are interested in learning what education is or can do. But despite all this rhetoric, every semester there are 25 students in each of my five classes, looking expectantly at me, asking me teach them how to be critical readers and writers.
These students are entitled to my knowledge and to my time. They should not have to settle for anything less than a professor who is accessible to them and cares about their learning. I said I did not want to talk about MOOCs, but I will here briefly. One of the values being circulated about MOOCs is that they illustrate how many people out there in the world really want to learn–more evidence that the so-called education crisis is likely manufactured by governments and corporations rather than teachers and students. Cathy Davidson argued in a recent blog post that innovations in online education can help people who might otherwise never have entered a “brick and mortar” institution, that it can give them access to higher education without the necessity of physical space. I have confidence that very smart people and some excellent teachers will find ways to make those experiences valuable.
However, there’s also something about this line of reasoning that makes me itchy. While access to learning is important for everyone everywhere in any way possible, in the students about whom Davidson and others have spoken I sometimes see my own students, and they should also be entitled to excellent teachers and one-on-one mentorship. We should be working towards situations where they can have the benefit of excellent professors who care about them and their needs specifically. Peer-to-peer education is a wonderful tool, but my sense from those 100-125 faces looking at me expectantly every semester is that I still have something important to offer.
MOOCs and other online programs might address a gap, but its a gap we need to close by agitating for better funding, more tenured faculty, lower tuition, and more academic freedom. This is because the pernicious side of advocating for online education as the onlyviable solution to our “crisis” is that some see it as a way to “take out the trash.” Trash that consists of educators like me and schools like mine. This rhetoric would instead let my students distance learn from MIT or Harvard in huge sections with no physical interaction with their peers or professors. Others argue, as President Broad of the American Council of Education did recently, that online education can help solve massive student debt because “not every student can afford to attend every institution.” While that may be true, it also entrenches a gap between the haves and the have-nots. This attitude looks at the problem backwards. Instead of seeing that students regularly risk financial ruin to attend these institutions and asking why it costs so much money to go to these “elite” schools that seem unattainable to those from outside the upper middle class, Broad’s response takes the cost of traditional public and private higher education as a fixed given, a privileged good, and focuses on how to expand learning to those “others” who cannot belong at traditional sites.
Those of us outside of the MOOC conversation because we teach at institutions that do not emphasize research or are not considered “elite” need to insist upon our value. We need to insist that we are not trash to be taken out, that we cannot be replaced by an online course that offers peer-to-peer grading as a substitute for classroom interaction and professor feedback. Our insistence is not because we resist change and innovation. Indeed, my experience illustrates that some of the best innovation happens in situations where professors are teaching heavy course loads. We need to insist on our value as teachers and professors because the vast majority of us are very good at our jobs. We cannot be in the practice of devaluing ourselves or one another as teachers, professors, and mentors. (After all, we have the legislature to do that for us.) Most importantly, we need to keep advocating for our own value and illustrating our excellence because our students are entitled to us. Having regular, personal access to great teachers and professors should not be a privilege, it should be a right, and we should all be engaged in innovation and advocacy that works toward and assures this right.