It’s the End of the Semester… as we know it
Every year, as the Canadian teaching season gets underway in early September — just as the Major League Baseball season winds down, the National Football League gears up, and the National Hockey League season skates onto the ice – except when it doesn’t, because the hockey bosses have locked the players out — I have a kind of sporting ritual that I habitually perform. I’ve been doing it for years. Each teaching season, as I don the “tools of ignorance” (as they say about catchers’ gear in baseball) and get ready to walk into the university classroom, I first sit down on the dugout bench and read a current book or essay about post-secondary education. My not very precise goal is to re-think whatever it is I think about teaching, education, universities, and the rest.
This year, the education piece was a short, spirited article by political science professor Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto, “There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom” (Toronto Globe & Mail, Aug. 18, 2012). “You hear a lot of talk about how universities and teachers are expensive dinosaurs and how the future of teaching lies online,” Orwin begins. “Don’t believe a word of it. The classroom experience — live — remains the heart of real education.”
To avoid subsequent confusion about debunking the rosy promise of the virtual university, Orwin first offers a definition. “By ‘education’ I don’t mean training or even mere instruction… By education I mean formation of the whole person, to which the humanities have traditionally aspired — as have the natural and social sciences in their noblest conceptions of themselves.” That distinction about education for the “whole person” is important and, unless you happen to rigorously keep up with the “conversation” within the education field, you’d have no idea of how many administrators, profs, and institutions don’t share Orwin’s notion of what education is for. (I’ll return to the crucial “what is education for?” question in due course.)
Orwin then turns to the looming cyber-juggernaut on the horizon, the mass open online courses (or MOOCs, as they’re known). “Online education… may sound good — false economies often do,” he says. “One professor and a zillion students — there’s a ratio to cheer the heart of a university administrator. And that all those students can remain isolated in their cubicles, from Saskatoon to Shanghai… And can tell everyone they got to study with a famous professor… How awesome is that?” Orwin is willing to concede that “no doubt such courses are a boon to many… all who lack access to a real education. Still, don’t mistake what’s better than nothing for what’s best,” he warns.
Orwin is now warmed up and ready to make his pitch: “Real education requires real teachers and students, not disembodied electronic wraiths… so-called education without live dialogue between teacher and student should excite no one.” Orwin allows, as a side-note, that once the classroom is live, then “by all means bring in the Web, too. Especially when courses are too large (as is common in our universities), an electronic component can be very useful.” (I’ll come back to Orwin’s glancing reference to the class-size problem in a minute.)
Now, the bottom line: “My theory of education is simple: You have to be there… The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can’t be transmitted electronically.” Orwin reminds us that good teaching is “inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it… You don’t address students in the abstract or as some anonymous throng scattered throughout cyberspace. You always teach these students, in this room, at this time.” (Italics mine.)
Adds Orwin: “So it matters to me to know who my students are, to know their faces and names, to see how they dress and what they’re reading. I need to talk to them before and after class and listen to what they’re saying among themselves. Above all, it’s crucial for me to hear their voices as they answer my questions and ask their own… It’s equally important to the students that I’m there. They need a real person with whom to engage. Someone to interrogate. Someone to persuade them. Someone to resist. Someone with whom they can identify or refuse to identify. Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it.”
As I finished Orwin’s energetic op-ed, I emitted a little self-satisfied harumph, and thought to myself, “My thoughts, exactly.” The reason I’ve quoted so much of his piece is that while once upon a time this sort of defense of “real” teaching could go unspoken, it no longer can. Furthermore, finding Orwin’s column in my morning Globe was a relief from the paper’s boosterish reporting on the prospects of online courses and the virtual university. It was also a relief from Globe columnist Margaret Wente, who year-after-year relentlessly attacks post-secondary education in the paper’s pages. (Just an aside here: I’ve seldom read anyone whose resentment of the alleged snobbishness of the Ivory Tower and its humbler pre-fab cousins is so extreme as Wente’s outpourings on the topic. For her, the students aren’t smart enough to be there, the teachers are charlatans, and the whole thing is a money-laundering racket.)
My self-satisfaction didn’t last very long. I made the mistake of turning to the “readers’ comments” on Orwin’s article. There were lots of them. A hundred or more. And to my surprise, most of the comments (about two-thirds, I’d say) were overwhelmingly opposed to Orwin’s point of view, and not a few of them were pretty vituperative. After I got over my classic Globe reader’s moment of being “shocked and appalled,” I took a closer look at the criticisms.
The critics fell into two distinct categories. One batch of criticisms tended to consist primarily of technophile enthusiasm for online education (and perhaps everything else online). These folks are people who in general think that online college education is or will be effective, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. (So far, the MOOCs are unaccredited and are being offered for free, but eventually they’ll be accredited and “monetarized,” to use the current catchword, and the fees are likely to be less than the $10,000 or more that major universities charge their students for annual tuition.) Readers who had had experience either teaching or taking online courses tended be more balanced in their comments than the technophile ideologues, and less likely to imagine that virtual universities were a panacea for all our educational woes.
The second category of commenters were people who had had experiences –mostly unpleasant, even bitter, experiences — in university classrooms with some sort of the live teaching Orwin was advocating. Once again, I was taken aback by the hostile character of their complaints. And for a moment I was puzzled about these reports of lousy classes. But then, after reading through enough of the complaints, I understood what they were talking about.
Most of them were describing and criticising the massive lecture courses that even Professor Orwin admitted are “too large” and are too “common in our universities.” In large Canadian universities, the last time I checked the stats, average class sizes for much of undergraduate education (that’s the 4-year program leading to a bachelor of arts or science degree) were in the neighbourhood of about 250 students per class. In recent years, even “upper-division” (third and fourth year) courses, which used to be seminar-sized (about 25 to 35 students per class) have gradually expanded to resemble the bigger introductory classes.
If you visit a university, the mass lecture course is a standard sight. Anywhere from a couple hundred to five hundred students are ranged in tiers in an amphitheatre-shaped lecture hall. The professor is down there in an automated lectern pit, looking about the size of an insect to the students in the upper tiers. The lecture hall is often in semi-darkness to facilitate the PowerPoint lecture that allows for written and visual material to be flashed up on the screen behind the lecturer. Punctuating the gloom are glowing pockets of lighted computers or other devices that the students cart to class in their giant rucksacks or airport-style luggage. (These days campuses look like a cross between jamboree camping expeditions and major air terminals.) If you stand at the back of the amphitheatre and look down at the screens on the students’ machines, you’ll see that a large number of the students, half-attentive to the lecture, are busy checking their Facebook status, watching YouTube videos, playing video games, and even spending the lecture hour doing some urgent online shopping. All these activities are in addition to sending incessant text messages on their (also glowing) smartphones.
Not unreasonably, the students find much of this academic “delivery system” boring, and seek available distractions. The spitballs, doodlings, and little passed-on written personal messages of yesteryear have given way to contemporary electronic entertainments. What the critics mention less often is that most of the undergraduate teaching (about three-quarters of it in big American universities) is being done not by full-fledged professors, but by “adjuncts,” “sessional lecturers” and graduate student teaching assistants, all of whom are paid a pittance and have none of the benefits (e.g., healthcare and pension plans) that are part of the package that help make for institutional ties and loyalties.
What are the real professors doing? Well, since most of the major universities are “research institutions,” they’re doing research with their graduate assistants and doing a certain amount of formal teaching in graduate student seminars. I’m not at all suggesting that these professors aren’t working hard, and I hope that this quick-sketch of current university education isn’t a crude caricature.
(I should perhaps also mention that there was actually a third, minuscule category of readers’ responses. These seemed to come mostly from long-suffering veteran teachers who wrote in to complain about students’ bad study habits: the students’ failure to read any books at all these days, their implicit demand that everything be spoonfed to them with elaborate packages of online notes, their distractedness and lack of motivation, etc. Naturally, I sympathise with these colleagues of mine, but I suspect they’re pointing to the symptoms rather than the heart of the problem.)
The large number of critics writing in to the Globe about their unhappy classroom experiences are telling the truth, and their criticisms are, in my view, by and large justified. There are, of course, exceptions to the dismal picture they paint. There are great lecturers who put on attention-riveting performances. Some of the mass lecturers devote a portion of the class to “discussion,” so there is at least some back-and-forth. And there is, even among the small face-to-face classes Orwin rightly praises, some lousy and boring teaching. But much of the mass lecture hall teaching is, as one might expect, only fair to middling. (Recently, I’ve been watching, on my computer, an “Open Yale course” series of lectures by Professor Paul Freedman on “Early Medieval History, 284-1000.” They’re perfectly okay — maybe not as exciting as Charlie Rose interviewing film director Quentin Tarantino, but not as dull as a YouTube video explaining how to “unfriend” someone on Facebook — thoroughly competent, relatively pleasant, on the whole unspectacular. Actually, while watching them, I was relieved to note that a distinguished Yale professor’s lectures were neither better nor worse than the lectures that are given at the backwater university where I teach in North Vancouver, British Columbia.) On the whole, though, the mass lecture system that dominates the university system is what provides an opening for advocating a mass online system.
Since I’ve mentioned my own workplace, this is the appropriate place to say something about it, and why I was at first puzzled by the classroom criticisms I read in the Globe. For one (big) thing, I don’t teach in the mass lecture system that characterizes post-secondary education in Canada and the U.S.
I teach philosophy in a university where there are 35 students to a classroom, and as a result, to echo Professor Orwin, I “know their names and faces, [I] see how they dress and what they’re reading. I… talk to them before, [during] and after class, and listen to what they’re saying among themselves” during breaks. What’s more, I mark their essays, I see them in my office, they phone me and send emails. If they’ve been missing in action, I often phone them or send out search parties. By the end of the semester, I have a pretty good idea of who they are intellectually and I often have some notion of what’s going on in their lives.
Like Professor Orwin, I see teaching as “inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it.” Like him, I teach “these students, in this room, at this time.” I probably should confess that I don’t really lecture at all. Oh sure, I talk a lot, and yes, I often “get on a roll” and perform the equivalent of arias in an opera (what the students call “going off on a tangent”), but I don’t do much formal lecturing. I talk, and I invite them to talk, and if, by the fifth or sixth week, things are going reasonably well, we’re having “discussions” about whether God exists, how do “selves” develop, do we have free will and all the other things that are talked about in “reality and knowledge” metaphysics classes. There are textbooks to read and essays to write, and the rest, but these classes are recognizably different from your average mass lecture.
And again, like Professor Orwin, I have a definition of education. I see it as fostering the development of critical, cultured, competent citizens (though of course we also do a lot of things that have to do with training and getting jobs, but even in such targeted programs we encourage students to take general education courses as “electives”).
How is it possible to do this? Well, for one thing, there’s an education law in British Columbia that provides for “special purpose, designated teaching universities.” There are a half-dozen such universities in B.C. as well as a couple of traditional but very small universities (out of 20 or so post-secondary institutions). Granted, that phrase “special purpose, designated teaching universities” is murky. I’m a little fuzzy myself on our “special purpose,” and aren’t all universities supposed to be “designated teaching” institutions? What it actually means is that we’re not a “research university.” If we want to do any research, we do it on our own time during fairly generous “professional development” and summer holiday periods. But while we’re at school, we teach.
We teach about twice as many courses as professors at research universities, but that was also the case back in the days when we were just a provincial arts and science college, before we became a “designated teaching university.” That, I suppose, helps keep costs down, as does our adequate middle-class salaries, which are only about two-thirds or less of what star research professors are paid. Despite our virtuous frugality, I just received a gloomy but typically upbeat-sounding e-memo from my university president informing me there’s a significant budget “shortfall” facing us for the coming year. (By the by, tuition at our provincial, public, somewhat backwoodsy, university is currently about half of what it costs to go to the province’s two big, major universities, the University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University, but don’t ask me to explain how or why it’s cheaper to go to our school, even though it’s far better than the giant uni’s… and anyway, our tuition rates have been going up quite a bit in recent years, too.)
Is the thing I’ve described “real education,” as Professor Orwin puts it? Yes, I think so. Are there badly-taught, boring, small, face-to-face university courses? Sure. Maybe more important than anything in all this education talk is the recognition that how well my preferred model or anybody else’s preferred model works is seriously limited by the state of the culture as a whole. So, if the members of the culture have generally stopped reading books, if they’re distracted by digital trivia, if they’re ignorant of history and civic life, if they’re overwhelmed by consumerism, or if there are few jobs to be had, obviously no matter how or what you teach, it’s not going to make much of a dent. I think that’s the situation we’re in, but this isn’t the occasion for the full-scale lament.
I can now turn to online education, MOOCs, and global virtual universities. I should say first that I’m not technophobic, I’m not especially hostile to online education, I’m perfectly willing to read on my Kindle, Kobo or other screens, and I’m not sentimental about the sound of cracking book spines or the smell of real ink on the printed page. What’s more, online education (either of the mass global or more locally targeted variety) makes a certain amount of sense once you’ve created the problem of the mass lecture university.
Probably, the virtual university is an example of what digital critic Evgeny Morozov calls “Internet-centric solutionism” in his book, To Save Everything, Click Here (2013). Sure, we’d prefer to have “real education” — small-sized, live, face-to-face classes — but once you’ve got a not very good mass lecture system — one whose infrastructure is expensive despite packing the students in like sardines, and that generates a lot of experiential dissatisfaction — the digital “solution” to the “problem” looks tempting. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. We should have been willing to pay for “real education.” But we weren’t and we ended up with live, but not quite real education, and it’s a problem. As Morozov notes, sometimes solutionism provides digital solutions to problems that don’t really exist, but sometimes it provides a digital alternative to things that shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place, but nonetheless are.
If you haven’t heard much about MOOCs, it isn’t for lack of media hype. Ever since 2011, when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, offered a free, online artificial intelligence course that attracted 160,000 students from over 150 countries (although only a small percentage of them completed the unaccredited course), there has been steady reporting, and a slew of essays, op-eds, and technophile propaganda declaring that the future of post-secondary education belongs to MOOCS.
“The resulting storm of publicity galvanized elite research institutions across the country to begin to open higher education to everyone — with the hope of perhaps, eventually, making money doing so,” writes education reporter Tamar Lewin. I especially like that “perhaps” in the previous sentence — no “perhaps” about those money-making hopes, I’d say. (Cf.. Tamar Lewin, “College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All,” the New York Times, Nov. 19, 2012.) Even when the reporting on this phenomenon is more or less objective, you can practically feel the subcutaneous frisson that accompanies the advent of the new and hip, the prospect of the transformation of a major social institution.
“The expansion has been dizzying,” reports Lewin. “Millions of students are now enrolled in hundreds of online courses, including those offered by Udacity, Mr. Thrun’s spinoff company; edX, a joint venture of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is offering” upward of 200 courses. What’s more, “in the rush to keep up, elite universities are lining up to join forces with a MOOC provider.” Coursera began with Princeton, Penn, Michigan and Stanford and its consortium currently leads the field with more than 30 university partners. EdX is also expanding: the University of California, Berkeley, has joined and the University of Texas says it will use edX courses for credit. Students in one Udacity class are already getting credit through the Global Campus of Colorado State University. I cite the details just to underscore the fact that this is not some garage-based amateur startup, and this is not your grandfather’s feeble stab at “educational TV.” There’s real money behind the scheme and “most MOOC providers are making plans to offer credit — and charge fees for certificates and proctored exams.” Once monetarized, the “open” in MOOC will gradually disappear, and the MOOCs will simply become MOCs (pun intended).
Throughout my teaching season — we’ve now traveled a couple semesters from last September — as I rattled away in my little classroom with the students whose faces and names I knew, the drumbeat of reportage and hype about online education got louder. The enthusiasm bubbled over not only in the mainstream liberal N.Y. Times and the conservative Globe and Mail, but could even be found in my local alternative left-of-centre online Vancouver news site, The Tyee. In the first of a series of “inspiring ideas for 2013,” an excited booster declared that “new opportunities exist for higher education to radically change, and if institutions of higher learning adapt they have the potential to build the foundations of a new economy.” (Justin Ritchie, “Idea #1: ‘MOOC’: Saviour of Higher Ed?”, TheTyee.ca, Dec. 19, 2012.) The essayist, Justin Ritchie, added the Social Darwinist warning, “But as Biology 101 teaches, only the strong — and innovative — survive.”
According to Ritchie, a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, “Universities currently educate students for a world that looks like the past, rather than tackle the sustainability challenges of the future… An outdated model of higher education is equipping students with tools for a toolbox that doesn’t exist… Future models of higher education will need to reduce costs, increase access and undergo a fundamental re-think of basic assumptions.”
You can read this sort of thing as fatuous nonsense or, more charitably, as youthful exhuberance. For truly drooling-at-the-mouth enthusiasm, you have to go to the techno-pros. Try Don Tapscott, reporting from the annual Davos conference in Switzerland: “For many years I’ve been writing about how the Internet and new models of pedagogy will bring an end to the university’s monopoly on higher education. Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. It’s happening right now. We may even remember this week as the turning point. If there is one issue that is buzzing through Davos… it’s that the time has finally come to reinvent higher learning.” Or, maybe nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, except a bad idea whose time has come, as my old philosophy professor Joseph Tussman used to say. (Don Tapscott, “The week university (as we know it) ended,” the Toronto Globe and Mail, Jan. 27, 2013.)
Tapscott also met a kindred spirit in the Swiss Alps, N.Y. Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said (or is it, yodelled?), in Tapscott’s words, “that the upheaval beginning in higher education is the biggest Internet-induced revolution currently underway in the world.” Mr. Friedman soon published an equally hyperbolic paean to the Virtual U. in the Times.
Occasionally, a voice of quiet reason knifed through the din. In the midst of a flurry of articles about post-secondary education (including the expected ones about MOOCs) that appeared in the Globe while last year’s teaching season unfolded, Mark Kingwell turned up. Kingwell is a well-known, very smart philosophy professor and author who works at the University of Toronto. He offered a batch of sensible reminders and suggestions under the heading, “Mark Kingwell’s seven pathways to the stars” (Globe and Mail, Oct. 13, 2012).
He provided a standard, but now mostly forgotten, list of what’s important in education that included such things as what to teach. Critical thinking, Kingwell urged, and “well, the basics: history, philosophy, world religions, political theory, mathematics and literature,” adding, “But also social justice, community service, languages, media criticism, diversity awareness and etiquette. (Stop looking at your phone while you walk!)” He also issued warnings about innovation (“Change and novelty should never be pursued for their own sake, or because the world at large is driven by them.”), and suggestions about how to teach the curriculum (“Sitting together in groups, with a shared text before us, still works as well as it did two millennia ago.”).
But his most important point was in response to the question, What is education for? “Education is a public trust,” Kingwell reminds his readers. “This may seem obvious in a country where postsecondary education is publicly funded… But the rhetoric of education has never been so dominated by the reductive logic of return on investment, of tuition traded for jobs.”
“Liberal education,” argues Kingwell, “is about citizenship not job training or simple personal enrichment — though it may incidentally provide both. Postsecondary institutions should be in the business, primarily, of creating critical, engaged citizens. This is not the current dominant view; it is nevertheless the correct one.” As I said above, such voices of reason that knifed through the din were rare.
There were also occasional cautions, like the New York Times editorial, “The Trouble With Online College,” (Feb. 18, 2013) pointing out that online attrition rates are high, that online courses are often not suitable for less than fully motivated course-takers, and that the stats showed “over and over again that… students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes.”
For the most part though, the drumbeat and the MOOCs kept marching on during the 2012-13 teaching season. Though it’s evident that I’m not a partisan of online education, oddly enough, I too, if less enthusiastically than the techno-ecstatics, think that the Virtual U. not only is coming, but may more or less “work.” Naturally, a lot depends on what one means by “work” (and by “more or less”).
First, a lot of social institutions — banking, travel, books, music, etc. — have already undergone a technological “transformation,” and some of it has even worked out for the better, although inevitably some other things get lost. The culture has, in the last decade, been prepped for further institutional transformation. Why not university education, too? Yes, something will be lost, namely what people like Professor Orwin (and I) call “real education.” But it won’t disappear entirely. Just as different modes of production are simultaneously maintained, so different modes of “education delivery” are likely to exist at the same time (though in different proportions than at present). There will continue to be a few, small, live classes, like the ones I teach currently; a lot of the mass lectures may get replaced by online podcasts, but there will be all sorts of “hybrid” arrangements to preserve the social interaction provided by live universities; and the online courses will make strenuous efforts to mimic some of the valued features of the present system.
Second, as Evgeny Morozov argues, don’t underestimate the intelligence or desire of the Silicon Valley engineers to make the technological transformation feasible and as pleasant as possible. (The issue isn’t the ability of the technicians to make it happen, but whether this is what we really want to happen.) The leaders of the Virtual U. movement are in a cooperative mood. Loss of social interaction? What about, in addition to online comment and question threads, the creation of student Skype circles so that the students can conduct discussions among themselves? Absence of contact with the prof? How about “crowd-sourcing technology” in which the prof views the student questions (top-rated by the students clicking “like” buttons) and responds to them in his next podcast? Loss of the campus? Well, hybrids can solve that — partnerships between the Virtual U. and brick-and-mortar schools. The students watch the lectures online globally, but go to their local campus for small seminar meetings with teaching assistants (alas, still low-paid assistants) and proctored exams. What about the glaring problem of motivation? Even my students who have taken online courses concede that getting motivated isn’t all that easy. Well, who knows, maybe a new sector of one-on-one personal education trainers will spring up to give pep talks, and count the reps.
Finally, the students and the culture are already deeply habituated to the technologies of the online university. When I discuss the spectre of the Virtual U. with my students, they aren’t shocked and appalled. They say, “Hmm, interesting.” They don’t automatically assume that small classes and face-to-face “real education” are inherently superior to virtual education. Equally important, the larger cultural context — in which literacy is in mild or rampant decline; where the visual replaces the word; where job training is indeed what education is all about (what else explains the current predominance of business degrees?); where everybody is already looking at a screen much of the day — favours the transformation of the university to a cyberform. And don’t forget the real fiscal muscle behind the development of MOOCs, or the fact that the prospect of mass online teacher-to-students ratios, as one reader respondent put it, is like crack cocaine for administrators.
So, to recall the title of that old REM song, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” A lot of people forget the last line of the refrain’s quatrain: “… it’s the end of the world as we know it / and I feel fine.” Well, I feel okay, too. Which is to say I have deeply mixed feelings. The alarums about the online university are likely as exaggerated as the enthusiams. Personally, I think the Virtual U. will be awful compared to “real education,” but it won’t be a disaster. We’ve gotten through all sorts of social changes in various pasts. It’s not my idea of education, but it’s somebody’s idea. Bemusement may be a saner response to these prospects than cranky old person’s rage.
As the 2012-13 teaching season wrapped up in the usual flurry of final exams, late papers, and grade submissions (and a few urgent office-hour meetings with disgruntled students who wanted to negotiate or argue for an inevitably undeserved, higher grade), this semester’s debate about the Virtual U. ended with an item from the satire-has-no-future department. “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break,” promised a New York Times headline (Apr. 4, 2013; good thing the story appeared on the 4th rather than April 1 — I would have assumed it was an April Fool’s prank). EdX, the Harvard-MIT consortium, reported the Times, announced the availability of automated software that “uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.” I’ll skip the details of this latest perpetual motion machine, except to assure you that I’m not making this up. This time a lot of reader responses to this breakthrough story went something like, “Is it also OK if I get an online program to write the essay?” Once we have the program to write the papers, said another, “we can have computers grading the papers written by other computers.”
As we toddle off into the gloaming, at the end of the semester as we knew it, we leave you with the paradisaical vision of the essay-writing machines being graded by the essay-marking machines, all of it happening in faster than real time.
Berlin, April 18, 2013