The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
If you put garbage in a computer nothing comes out but garbage. But this garbage, having passed through a very expensive machine, is somehow ennobled and none dare criticize it... ...Anonymous
Commentary of the Day - April 7, 2000: Choosing a Future - Guest Commentary by Jerry Farber:
[Ed. note: Professor Farber originally sent the following comments to his colleagues on the University Senate at San Diego State University.  He has kindly granted us permission to republish them.]

With the advent of distance learning in its digital form, we appear to have arrived at a sorting-out time in postsecondary education. Campuses across the country, whether they realize it or not (and many of them don't) are in the process of choosing a future.

A number of community colleges are moving very rapidly (or being pushed) into distance learning. On the other hand, there are major research universities that are still staying relatively clear of it. Earlier this year, I asked a correspondent at a highly prestigious Eastern university what was happening on her campus in the way of distance learning.  Her answer was: not much. But she did add that there had been some administrative encouragement in this direction, though the administration seemed torn between opposing desires: (1) to maintain the university's elite image, and (2) not to miss out on any lucrative opportunities. Even here, I suspect, the temptation may be not so much to provide DL courses to the university's own student population as to use them in an extension program, or to export them at a profit to other institutions. Still, the situation is far from clear-cut. Even Yale, it seems, worries about being "left behind" in distance learning by its Ivy League peers.

But it's campuses like those in the CSU system that are in the most uncertain position.  Should we move in the direction of, say, Oberlin and choose to maintain a rigorously class/lab/field-centered curriculum, or should we move in the direction of North Virginia Community College, which lists 154 distance learning courses for Spring 2000--offered either on-line or through videocassettes and cable TV?

What I want to urge is that faculty and administrators of every university (and, in particular, this one) should at least recognize that there are major choices to be made, and make them deliberately, thoughtfully, and with their eyes wide open.

This has not, by and large, been happening up to now--to the point that some universities are backing into or sliding into screen-based instruction without having given serious thought to what they are doing. Really, it's astonishing how uncritical we scholarly types have been in this regard, how ready we have been to credit without careful scrutiny even the most shallow, most specious arguments in favor of distance learning. Can't we, I wonder, at least move the deliberative process onto a higher level?

To that end, let me offer, for what it's worth, a brief critique of some of the principal arguments that I have seen advanced in favor of distance learning.

A. "Distance instruction can be just as effective as face-to-face instruction."

The catch is in the word "effective." Three-quarters of a century of research has shown that, if all you want is test scores, then classroom instruction, radio, television, audiotapes, videoconferencing, etc. are all, very roughly, of equal effectiveness. You don't even need expensive modes that offer synchronous interactivity. Old-fashioned one-way TV or videocassettes will do very nicely (in fact, some have argued, even better than more highly interactive modes).

On other hand, there is another, very substantial body of careful research that documents an overall ensemble of crucially important effects, achieved by the traditional college experience, that go far beyond testable knowledge and skills. These are net effects on attitudes, values, interests, and aspirations; on flexibility of thought and tolerance for ambiguity; on inclination toward rational problem solving; on orientation toward public affairs and toward aesthetic and intellectual subjects; on development of social conscience and humanitarian values; etc. Equally important, this research has also shown that interaction among students and between students and faculty plays a major role in achieving these effects.

Most of us know perfectly well from our own experience as students and teachers that a college education is transformational. It's not just a body of information and a set of skills, and it's certainly not just vocational training. And most of us, I think, would want to make this kind of experience available to as many people as possible--for their own sake and for the sake of the society that we all live in.

Furthermore, a great many academic disciplines--my own, for example (literary study)--simply don't resolve down to a matter of measurable competence alone. Not just within university education as a whole, but with individual disciplines as well, there are attitudes, values, orientations, goals, ways of engaging with the subject matter, intellectual standards, modes of challenging oneself--even passions, commitments, moral re-evaluations--that are far more likely to emerge from face-to-face human interaction in real time and real space than from an instructional video, a CD-ROM, or an electronic chat group.

Why then are we so quick to credit these "just as effective" claims? Do we really think college education is nothing more than a set of test scores? Would you or I have wanted such an "education"?

B. "Distance learning in many cases is actually preferable, because it offers the instructor a whole array of exciting and effective new teaching techniques."

To oppose conversion from the classroom to the screen does not in any way imply that one opposes the introduction of digital technology into postsecondary education. Most of what this technology offers can be seen not as an alternative to classroom teaching but rather as something that supports it. We assign books; in the same way, we can assign interactive software. We show slides in class; in the same way, we can take students on a virtual tour of an art museum, a neuron, an archeological excavation. Students are taught to use the library wisely; they can receive the same kind of instruction in using the Internet, and can learn to integrate it intelligently into their research. Classroom teaching can be supported by a syllabus and office hours, but also by a course website, by e-mail communication between student and teacher, by an electronic student discussion group.

Faculty in some fields may find that this kind of support through the new media enables them to do a better job in the classroom--perhaps even frees them from more "mechanical" instruction, allowing them to devote more class time to an open, interactive, lively exploration of important issues. Other faculty may conclude, with good reason, that all the technology they need is a set of texts, a reasonably comfortable room, and a chalkboard. I see no reason why there should be any effort made to "bring everyone aboard."

And, as enthusiastically as we may want to embrace the digital media, we do have to remember that each development in educational technology has its own potential for misuse. How many classes have I visited where students and teacher alike seem mesmerized, staring interminably at some stupid overhead projection--four bulleted sentences--while the teacher drones on like a voice-over? How many mindless, boring Powerpoint presentations have I been subjected to? To take just one further example: I often wonder, looking at their proliferation throughout the entire K-16 educational system, if videos have been a net gain or a net loss. How many minimalist instructors have redefined themselves as video jockeys? How many students have reluctantly switched off the TV at home, only to come to campus and stare at yet another screen?  How many high school classes use videos as a kind of babysitter. "We're reading The Odyssey," the teacher thinks. "Excellent--we can spend a whole week and a half watching that new mini-series." (And this happens not just in high school, I'm sorry to report.)

But what I am saying is not "anti-technology." It is anti-mindlessness. The classroom is a an almost unbelievably rich and fertile medium; we have to learn not to waste it. Digital technologies should not supplant it or undermine it, but, where appropriate, help us to use it better.

C. "Working-class students at this university don't have time to be driving to the university, hunting for parking, sitting around in one classroom after another. We have to make education something that's accessible, that fits into their lives."

This from a colleague whom I otherwise respect. She thinks she's being progressive, but what, actually, are the implications of this argument? That we're showing our sympathy with working-class students by denying them a real education?

In fact, this is what I find most depressing about the advent of distance learning. The students at most of the elite universities are going to get the best of both worlds: the best technology, the best labs, the best array of library services, the best computers--but also a strong sense of tradition and identity, and an encompassing, foundational sense of place and physical context; they're going to be getting a rich, dynamic campus community: seminars, discussion groups, abundant interaction with faculty and other students, concerts, readings, symposia, bull sessions, parties. They'll be getting a real education that will prepare them to engage with others, to participate in society, to create, to lead.  Whereas the senate at my particular state university, in its wisdom, seems poised to open the floodgates of distance learning--so that our working-class students, who, throughout their early years, have put in their four hours a day of TV time (who, in fact, are likely to have put in more TV time than their more affluent peers), can now be planted in front of screens for several more years, until the time comes when they can be sent out into the cubicles of California to spend the rest of their working years staring into still more screens.

What we have, in other words, is a new, perhaps even more effective, version of the old, all-too-familiar educational machine by which social inequity reproduces itself.

Most of us remain trapped in the late-20th-century mindset that sees digital technology as a sort of privilege that has been monopolized by the rich and must be extended to the poor. Of course, there's truth to this. But it's not the whole truth. How easily we forget that technological developments can also be enslaving to the poor, while the rich, precisely because they are rich, are enabled to maintain a certain distance from them.  The nineteenth-century poor, let us remember, were very successfully "brought in" to the technology of textile mills. And how many women in this century successfully closed the "gender gap" in technology, finding themselves chained to typewriters and switchboards--while their employers neither answered their own phone nor typed their own letters.

These days we don't have quite as many people as we used to who are tied to an assembly line or to heavy machinery. But people who are required to stare into a screen all day long performing boring and stultifying tasks? Their numbers increase daily. They are the new proletariat. And when it comes to education, they don't really need the real thing, do they? They just need to be moved as quickly as possible through the system, and--when they find a job upon graduation--to "hit the ground running" (insofar as one can run in a cubicle). How inappropriate for people like this to be given a fully dimensional and authentic education in real time and real space. And who understands this better than Charles Reed? What's the point, right? Save that kind of thing for the rich kids at Stanford.

What can I say except that I despise this. Don't you? Don't you hate the idea that California State University students, because they happen to come from families with less education and less money, are to be given cheap, alienating, impersonal, bare-bones, essentially vocational instruction to prepare them for equally alienating and impersonal careers. To prepare them to be, let's say, high school teachers overseeing students who will spend the school day at banks of computers programmed to improve their scores on the standardized tests (tests that will determine, among other things, whether or not the teachers in question receive a modest "merit" raise at the end of the year)?

How well do we want to prepare people to adapt to a less than humane work world?  Shouldn't education always further a critique of the world we are preparing students to live in at the same time as it gives students skills they will need to participate in it?  Shouldn't education strengthen and nourish students' humanity rather than constrict it?

Having taught in the CSU for a long time, I think I know what working-class students need. They need what the students at Stanford and Harvard and Berkeley need. A real education. Nothing less.

D. "Let's be realistic. What makes you think a student is better off sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other people, staring at the clock, while some professor reads his yellowing lecture notes?"

You hear a lot about yellowing notes these days, now that distance learning has presented itself as the educational alternative. There's a litany of derisive terms that circulates among DL proponents: "Yellowing notes." "The sage on the stage." "Seat time." "Bricks and mortar."

I'm not inclined to want to defend bad teaching. Particularly since I've spent so many years criticizing it mercilessly wherever I see it--in myself and in others. Nor am I especially fond of giant classes. But they can be productive if a university uses them sparingly and staffs them with teachers who know how to work a big room, and enjoy doing it, and who understand that even giant lecture classes can be interactive and alive, and perhaps even especially exciting, precisely because of their size.

Every instructional medium can supply its horror stories: the 200-student Web-based GE class where a student gets credit by submitting his roommate's work; the on-line creative writing class where the e-mail "instructor" turns out not to have read the course textbook. So to use the very worst-taught face-to-face classes to justify distance learning hardly exhibits that "critical thinking" we all keep yammering about.

The last thing we need to do with the classroom is to give up on it; but we certainly do need to learn to use it better. When people used to spend most of their time in the real world, perhaps we could afford to be casual about the classroom, to take it for granted.  Now, however, as people's lives become ever more mediated, the classroom is emerging as a privileged place, a kind of holy ground, if you will. It's not just a conduit for subject matter; it's an increasingly precious medium for intellectual exploration in the context of live, fully-dimensional human community. If every classroom teacher could simply remember this going into every class session, education would start moving toward a golden age.

E. "Good or bad, distance learning is what's happening." (Or even this version I heard from someone on a curriculum committee: "I hate it, but it's inevitable.")

Here we have the argument from historical inevitability. "It's happening." Less an argument, I would say, than a kind of pathology. We who are responsible for postsecondary education have nothing to say about it? We have no choice? What is this but a cop-out?

And still worse is what one hears from faculty who are approaching retirement. "Hey, I'm out of here." What a sense of commitment to the university where they've spent their professional lives! What a sense of commitment to university system in general. "Après nous le Déluge." We turn to the people with the most reason to defend the university, and we find a sense of powerlessness or we find this self-absorbed indifference. (Meanwhile the Reeds, you may be sure, are full of passionate intensity.)

Actually, I would argue that if the conversion to distance learning is inevitable, this is primarily because of our own conviction that we are powerless in the face of irresistible historical forces. The problem isn't with the irresistible nature of distance learning, but with our own paralysis in the face of it. But, happily, there is a therapy for this: it consists of saying the phrase "No, thanks" at frequent intervals. It's hard at first, but it
gets easier.

None of us should back out of this struggle--whether because of some supposed historical inevitability, or because we're seeking a private solution, or even out of despair over the apathy or foolishness or toadying of our colleagues; that too is just one more cop-out. Far too much is at stake. There is simply nothing to do but fight.

F. "What we're after isn't one thing or the other, but rather a balanced approach, an appropriate mix of instructional modes."

Why? This "appropriate mix" notion begs the question. Why, aside from certain very specific exceptional situations [see the note* below], should there be any conversion at all from the classroom to the screen. If "appropriate mix" refers to the use of instructional technology, where appropriate, to support classroom teaching, that's a reasonable position. But if it means portioning out the curriculum--these courses and programs stay in the classroom, these go on the Web, these move to two-way teleconferencing, these go on CD-ROM, etc.--then we're back to the question itself: why move education from the classroom to the screen?

Let me close with a vision--a bad dream, really. This particular vision comes with a title:


This is an institution that prides itself on offering "quality" distance learning, along with a modest amount of campus-based instruction. Many curriculum areas are entirely or almost entirely screen-mediated; a few others have remained somewhat more classroom centered. In some programs, a pattern has emerged, with students doing most of their work off campus via distance modes, but being required to appear either at the campus or at satellite centers once or twice a year to consult with faculty and to participate for a day or two with other students in face-to-face sessions. Many programs, however, require no presence on campus whatsoever.

This institution maintains what it proudly claims as "rigorous" standards: requiring, for example, that normal admissions criteria be maintained; courageously insisting that distance students have access to library services; that permanent faculty have a hand in every distance-learning program; that, in every program, there be at least the opportunity for some sort of "interaction," if only by occasional e-mail, should any students choose to avail themselves of it.

The faculty are vigorously entrepreneurial; in fact, much of their time and energy go in this direction. Rare is the professor who isn't either starting up a company to exploit his or her academic research, or, at least, bringing some product or another to market: a videotaped management course, say; or an Intro to Lit on CD-ROM

This institution has a dazzling abundance, in fact a plenitude, of generous "partners": business corporations that maintain a substantial presence on campus and play an decisive role in shaping (and exploiting) research and in shaping programs and courses as well. A great many programs, in fact, are tailored for specific individual corporations and offered on-site. All in all, the institution's goals and practices and the goals and practices of its corporate "partners" mesh so smoothly that it is often almost impossible to say where this institution that used to be a university leaves off and the business corporations begin.

With fewer and fewer students actually required to be on the main campus, this institution has "reinvented" itself as a commercial and entertainment center, with a ten-story hotel/convention center, a multiplex theater, restaurant pavilions, condominiums, office towers, mixed-use retail, and a giant arena for basketball tournaments, wrestling matches, and pop concerts--all served by a major underground transit center and the former university's abundant parking resources. (And plans are under way for a theme park with an "academic" focus.) The always formidable campus "Foundation" has emerged now as an economic colossus, artfully (and, somehow, legally) blending the most attractive elements of both public and private status, and reaping the benefits of hugely profitable university-area "redevelopment" projects.

[Well, fellow senators, that's all I can make out at this point. The darkness drops again, but now, at least, I know what it is we appear to be so eager to give birth to here at Montezuma Mesa.]

Jerry Farber
- - - - - - - - - - - -

* What are these exceptions? For one thing, it seems reasonable that certain "professional upgrade" programs should be offered through distance learning for those who have already completed a degree program and embarked on a career (but only in fields, I would add, where presence, community, and interpersonal communication are not an issue--DL upgrades in, say, pedagogy or clinical psychology would seem like a questionable idea).

Another exceptional situation would be the consortium established among a number of universities to offer a highly specialized degree program for which adequate resources do not exist and are not likely to exist in the future on any single campus. The new CSU Jewish Studies program provides an example (perhaps a borderline example, since it would have been far better, I think, to have fought for the means of concentrating this major on a single campus). Much of the work in such a program can be done through normal classroom courses, which are, however, be supplemented by videoconferencing, electronic discussion groups, etc.

Finally, there is the situation of the person who would like to attend a university, but is place-bound or even shut-in. This kind of problem is often advanced as an argument for distance learning. But it is hardly a reason why one university after another should self-destruct. To meet the needs of these very special situations, a single North American DL institution, or possibly, two or three at the very most, should suffice.

What is crucial is that universities which choose to remain real universities should take an unequivocal stand in favor of the real thing: education that's centered in the classroom, the lab, and the field experience. They should in other words categorically prohibit the conversion of any course or program from classroom instruction to screen-mediated instruction. From that point on, any rare exceptions that might present themselves would have to be argued out and approved by the university senate itself. To do otherwise, given the very powerful forces impelling postsecondary education toward distance learning--to leave the decision up to individual faculty or programs, or to some curriculum committee--would open the way for a gradual, or perhaps not so gradual, erosion of the educational quality of the university.
The IP teaches an online course on Energy and the Environment at Cal State Fullerton.  He also took two correspondence courses (one in American history and one in vector analysis) while an undergraduate at Berkeley.  Based on his experiences with distance education both as a student and as an instructor, he feels much as Jerry Farber does that distance education should play only a minor role in a student's education.  The IP has commented previously on the use of technology in education and on large online classes.

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