Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Supposed Prospects of Online Education

People are beginning to pay attention to an apparent shift from traditional forms of higher education, as  offered by the modern research university, towards online dissemination of intellectual materials. The most progressive among us seem to think that the university campus, and the high rates of tuition that come along with it, are on the way out. The idea middle class teenagers would leave home, get an education, and start a new career, new life, and possibly a new family, may not last long in our cultural consciousness.

Most attempts to make sense of whether the modern research university will decline in the face of the proliferation of online opportunities rest on what I believe are faulty assumptions. The university is thought merely to offer a product for consumers. (See the Economist or Slate.) People want information in order to advance themselves professionally, to develop a new set of skills, or purely to satisfy curiosity. The internet makes that information readily available to anyone who wants to pay a price, one that is much smaller than traditional tuition fees. But, in fact, the modern research institution has never been exclusively an institutional context for the generation and dissemination of knowledge. It also serves the function of accrediting students for entrance into a wide range of professions. It establishes a baseline against which non-academic businesses can judge the suitability of a job candidate. If you don't have a degree, the mantra goes, don't bother apply for the job.

The internet has long been lauded for making possible the democratization of knowledge. The possibility of learning anything, doing anything, and making anything of yourself is held out for dreamers to take hold. But a true democratization of knowledge and human potential is not possible. Even Wikipedia is not without a system of quality control. There will always exist communally-sanctioned processes whereby individuals are vetted, accredited, and steered towards a limited number of vocational options. The modern research university has established itself to fit just that role.

If online course offerings are ever going to meaningfully challenge the modern university, a number things will need to happen. The most obvious is that an online university will have to show that it can maintain the academic standards of a traditional university, if the forum is to be credible. It will also have to demonstrate that it can maintain the interests of students for periods of time long enough to complete a degree. Traditional university settings were able to encourage this through immersion. Someone who enrolled in an online institution would do so presumably because they had other time commitments. Certainly their is a market for this type of program, but it can hardly be the standard model. Perhaps the immersive experience can be achieved through Second Life or similar form of virtual interaction.

Let us not jump to any hasty conclusions about the demise of traditional forms of university education. Thus far, websites like Coursera and Udacity can only augment and enhance traditional forms of education.

4 comments:

tamor said...

"There will always exist communally-sanctioned processes whereby individuals are vetted, accredited, and steered towards a limited number of vocational options. The modern research university has established itself to fit just that role."

Huge jump in logic. If anything, the modern research university has proven that is it not capable of doing such a thing. It is trapped in a modernist pedagogy that can easily be replicated by finding a list of worthwhile books and/or lectures online and reading/watching them.

"...an online university will have to show that it can maintain the academic standards of a traditional university..."

Also a jump in logic, as it assumes that universities maintain such academic standards. There is a great distinction between going to one type of university and then going to another. It also depends on what subject a person is studying and how a certain school is perceived compared to others when it comes to that subject. I won't even go into the problem of the extreme subjectivity of the grading process and how different professors, TA's, or other markers all measure academic success in different ways.

"The university is thought merely to offer a product for consumers."

The university has become a consumer product. What once was an institution that educated its students in a broad range of fields now caters to more specific career or educational paths. Students have to savour their electives and choose them wisely to get anything close to what was once considered a university education.

How will Universities be saved? By moving away from the modernist pedagogy that primarily values a lecture-listen-read-write method, and readjust to give at least equal value to the experiential. As universities offer an educational experience that is purposefully shaped, then students will continue to flock to them to learn.

If the modernist pedagogy continues to reign in our centres of higher learning, then there really is no reason for such classrooms to exist in a physical environment, and they will be properly replaced by a virtual system that could allow for more interaction.

Richard Greydanus said...

You're going to have to define more carefully what you mean by logic...if you mean that you bring to bear different considerations, which I left out, and so have a different perspective to offer to the question at hand...then okay, but that's not logic.

tamor said...

I'll bite... how would you argue that the modern research university has established itself as vetting, accrediting, and steering individuals towards a limited number of vocational options?

Also, how has the modern university shown itself capable of maintaining academic standards?

Both of these comments seem more hypothetical to me, but personally I have a hard time believing either of them to be factual.

I retain the right to change my opinion if properly swayed...

Richard Greydanus said...

Have you noticed how a good number of the jobs you apply for require a degree or diploma of some sort? That's how.

As for the university being capable of maintaining academic standards, it is not so much that they maintain a standard, as they set the standard, and "we" who require that our employees have a minimum standard of education "trust" universities and the like to ensure that the standards are valid.

The standard are only hypothetical, if you have have an objective standard that exists outside of the government regulated, self-legislating standards of academic institution--a standard that exists in the mind of God? Otherwise, it sounds to me like you are simply being contrarian, and nothing will satisfy you.