Thursday, February 17, 2011

Education Electronic, Like the Dissolution of Monasteries

There is much discussion about how to “save” education costs by making more classes and degrees available online. Advocates, such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have been aggressively pushing this notion. One claim is that it is cheaper and more interesting for students to learn online, than to have to drag into a lecture hall and listen to some stodgy professor drone on. Students would have more access to education in an online setting, and it the education would be of a higher quality.

How interesting.

The US Department of Education even released a study claiming that higher education students studied online “performed better” than students who physically attend classes. Never mind that the Community College Research Center later found the analysis to be flawed, due to an improper selection of student populations used in the assessment, the USDE study is cited all over the place as evidence that online education is better. The CCRC study did not find in the USDE study any evidence to support the notion that students learn better in an online environment. In fact, the CCRC study found that students were more likely to withdraw from an online course than from one offered in a  traditional classroom setting.

How interesting.

In Britain, meanwhile, Lord Browne et al put out a report, last October, with the windy title “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance.” Stefan Collini reviewed this document for the London Review of Books November 2010 edition. Collini is disturbed by many assertions in this so-called independent review. I quote from the article:
Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as a provision of the public good… Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e., universities)… Britain’s universities, it is proposed, should henceforth be operated in accordance with the tenets of perfect competition theory.”
How interesting.

There is a lot to be said about all of the above. There are many pages to read of reports. But here is what I will say, in short, on all of this:

The gutting of higher education is underway. The rhetoric is hot and furious, and coming mostly from people who either benefited from publicly funded education or who are independently wealthy or who are capitalists on the prowl for the next drill down site.

Education costs money. Does it cost less money to attend class online? Well, that depends on whether you are getting the class through a for-profit “university” or a state funded institution. University of Phoenix has probably set the bar in for-profit education, and we are now seeing the idea spread like an infection.

Do you have a computer? Do you have internet access? All of these things cost money. When I attended university, I did not have a computer. I read books; I listened to lectures; I wrote papers. Amazingly, none of this happened with a computer! I paid for music lessons, books, paper, pens and pencils, as well as student and course fees. Today, you cannot even attend college classes without a computer. Why is that? Because it is “so much easier to do the work with computer access.” Well, that is as may be, but I have a friend who is a college professor; she spends most of her office time battling with her own computer set-up because the network is constantly down. If it is a time saver, it is an expensive one, not to mention a troubleshooting time suck.

Choice, do you like choice? Do you know what you want? If you are an 18 year old college bound youth, do you have any idea what you want to do with your life? HA! "Consumer driven education" has got to be the wackiest capitalist myth ever! The brains of most undergraduates have not fully developed to the point where critical thinking is possible, and most people need to be taught how to think critically through a course in the Philosophy or Psychology Departments.

Quality education, how is it to be determined or regulated? Can one teach Socratic Dialogue by email? Biology Labs from home? Does one learn better without benefit of group discussion or even the barest human contact?

The gutting of higher education could be compared to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which, under the cover of Reformation, slid a great deal of wealth into a relatively small number of undeserving pockets, but did not benefit the average person one whit.

Look for more noise about choices in education. Expect fees to skyrocket. Expect your education "service provider" to be raking in a lot of money, but don't expect that you will be able closely examine who might be teaching your internet courses or that you will be able to "critically assess" whether your class is doing to do you any good. 

This feigned concern about how best to "deliver" education is not about providing a lasting cultural gift or benefiting society; this is about greed and it is about money. Once the universities (indeed, all bastions of public education) are dismantled, and once the unions are broken, drill down begins and the great divide continues. Those who can afford to will pay, because there will be no other choice. As for the rest of us…

Well, now, that should be interesting.


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