Don’t you love those commercials for online universities? You can go to college at home, in your pajamas!! Well, I teach at a small state-located university and I am now training special education teachers on the Master’s level, at home, everyone in pajamas. Sort of.
Where do I start? First, my comment on teaching at a state-located university. For those of you not in the ed. biz, that may need some clarification. When I first came here, 23 years ago, we considered ourselves a state university. With budget cuts, we began calling ourselves a state-sponsored university. Now with GOP governor and legislature, we think of ourselves as state-located. The state provides less than 30% of our funding.
What does this have to do with online education? We make our budget by recruiting and retaining students. We are in a rural area with declining population. To stay alive, increasingly we have to recruit by offering classes, even entire degrees, online.
I have mixed feelings about this.
A year ago, I hated online classes. I didn’t understand how to teach them. I didn’t know how to take what had made me a sparkling presence in a classroom and make that happen live. I didn’t know how to build in rigor, yet provide support. I didn’t know how to keep the plates spinning.
The technology was not a problem for me. I am very comfortable with all the bells and whistles of the Internet. Surprisingly, it was not as easy for my students. Many of them struggle with what I consider the basics of technology and I learned to build in activities that tapped into content but also built tech skills.
I learned the rest of it. Learned how to use tricks of engagement and variety of assignments. Learned the balance between support and nagging. Learned how to nurture, mentor, give feedback, all the things I used to do live. Even learned how to share the stories that were the hallmark of my teaching.
What I continue to struggle with is actually the same problem with teaching live: the nature of today’s college student. Do you remember being told that for every hour of lecture you should be prepared to do 3 hours of outside work? Today’s college student is like everyone else in our society- over-committed, over-scheduled, frantically, grindingly busy. They have been told that online courses allow them to fit college into those spare minutes of the day. They do not consider the need for concentration, reflection, preparation and reading.
The other problem common to both online and brick-and-mortar classes is the emergence of the idea that a college course is a product. I will admit that some college professors have, in previous generations, been arrogant, out of touch, impersonal. But the amount of attention and care expected by the average college student today is astounding. They have paid (usually from borrowed funds) a large amount of money to be there, and they expect much in return. I paid my money. I came to class. I did the work. Regardless of the quality of said work, I deserve the grade I paid for.
For online instructors, this means 24/7 availability. Students see the university like the cable company. Have a problem? Call customer service. Which in their minds means Chair of department, Dean or even Provost. So in addition to teaching, an online instructor must answer emails, phone calls, text messages immediately.
I didn’t intend to descend into a whine. Sorry about that. My point of all this is much bigger than this post. Like everything else in this hyper-commercialized world, education has become a commodity. We are losing the art of it. We are losing the science of it. It has become just another highly marketed product. As Thom Hartmann so often reminds us, we have lost the concept of the Commons, a place free from commerce.