During the NITLE Summit last week, some posters from the twitter stream asked what folks at the morning plenary session thought about a New York Times article on the use of online courses in public schools. I had read the article with dismay, as it described a trend towards using online courses as a way for schools to offer both Advanced Placement courses when there were too few students to fill a face-to-face course and “make up” courses for students who had failed courses in face-to-face settings. After the meeting, I appreciated the conversation NITLE Senior Fellow Bryan Alexander initiated on Facebook. I particularly liked the photograph that accompanied the post Howard Rheingold pointed to among his contributions to DML Central, though I would caution that there are likely to be significant differences in budgets between the schools featured in Rheingold’s photograph and the ones mentioned in the NYT article.
My initial gut reaction to the NYT article hasn’t changed. I am nauseated but not surprised every time I see an indication that people who think about the bottom line think of “online education” as a way to achieve efficiencies. My quick Twitter response to the question was easy: Technology is a tool. It can be used well or poorly. It cannot make decisions about its use. That’s our job as educators/edministrators.
Many issues arose during that morning plenary, including the conflicting purposes of colleges and universities, which are magnified in a climate in which increasing access to information undermines the traditional structures of professional scholarship and teaching. Professors come from graduate schools valuing research and unsure of how to graft teaching responsibilities onto apparently esoteric research interests. Students and their parents, concerned about the high price of higher education, nevertheless seek the credentials they know are minimal requirements for success in the so-called real world. Administrators must balance budgets, and admissions officers must make classes. Institutions compete for students even as many of the most interesting research projects require collaborations across institutions.
John Seely Brown, the speaker at our evening plenary, celebrates the opportunities for open learning and intellectual play offered by the abundance of information that is currently available and will only grow in the foreseeable future. My favorite of the examples he mentioned at a later session is MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which allows students to receive course credit, be paid, or work on a voluntary basis, participating as colleagues in the research projects of their professors. JSB suggests that institutions would do well to cut half their courses from the curriculum and put the saved time to use in closer research collaborations between faculty members and students.
Education is not an efficient process. High quality education requires meaningful interactions among instructors and students. Including technology in the mix can contribute to students’ preparation for the learning they will continue to do after they leave the educational “bubble” or “tower” or whatever other protected metaphor we wish to use. Misusing technology to manufacture “efficiencies” does everyone a disservice.