On-Line Education and Residential Colleges

I am certainly not the only person writing about Mark Edmundson‘s op-ed in the New York Times: “The Trouble with Online Education.” (Indeed, here’s Cathy Davidson’s response.) Edmundson’s piece will rightly get a lot of attention for what it says about the shortcomings of online college courses, particularly MOOCs, but I’m much more interested in what he writes about successfully engaging students in our regular classrooms. I read Edmundson’s piece in the context of this analysis of on-line education by Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times, published just a day earlier. Perez-Pena offers this point about the types of colleges that are near and dear to me:

Residential colleges already attract far less than half of the higher education market. Most enrollment and nearly all growth in higher education is in less costly options that let students balance classes with work and family: commuter colleges, night schools, online universities.

Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities. But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche.

One of his sources suggests that of this particular niche, only the elite schools with large endowments will survive. Other residential colleges — those with small endowments and who rely almost solely on tuition dollars for operation costs — are, according to the author, likely to go away.

Two thing make me question Perez-Pena’s analysis. The second is Edmundson’s argument about the value of face-to-face teaching, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The first is my different understanding of who goes to college in the first place. In terms of overall market niche, it’s probably true that the non-elite residential college niche is shrinking — but it may not be true in terms of real numbers. As more people go to college generally, enrollments are likely to grow at non-traditional institutions. A larger college-going population naturally includes a higher number of non-traditional students — parents, vets, working class folks, etc. These people will — indeed are — flooding the college market, but they were never looking at residential colleges in the first place.

Residential colleges are the engines for credentializing and networking the middle and upper classes. I suppose they educate those classes, too, but right now their biggest value lies in how well they get students into post-degree positions. 30,000-student MOOCs aren’t going to appeal to kids (and parents) looking for schools that will give them access to the cultural cache and connections that residential colleges offer. We can talk all we want about folks demanding more economical education alternatives, but when faced with the option of giving a child an education that happens in the isolation of on-line courses or one that provides the extras of social networks, internships, and general people skills, most middle and upper class folks will choose the latter. And if the kids aren’t too bright or ambitious, those lower-tier residential schools that provide good amenities and decent contacts are going to look quite good, regardless of the bill.

My point here is that Perez-Pena is assuming way too rational and equal a market for higher education. I suggest we’re a long way off from middle- and upper-class parents being comfortable planting their kids in front of the home computer instead of dropping them off at a nicely furnished residence hall. So to the extent that the on-line market is booming, I think it’s more of a threat to mid-level public universities, who already find their funding lacking. Folks who are planning to attend North-by-Northwest State University at Middle City might be more enticed to take on-line courses than those heading to Old Dead Rich Guy College. I’m not taking a swipe at the quality of public universities. I’m just making a point about the allure of cultural capital to the moneyed and even not-quite-so-moneyed classes.

My second point is far less cynical and draws directly from Edmundson’s argument about the value of classroom interaction. Fairly or not, Edmundson characterizes on-line education as sterile and lonely, even in small-ish courses where the instructor and students interact regularly through e-mail, messaging, Skype, etc. The time in-class is a happening, an event; it occurs only once and has a vitality to it that on-line technologies simply can’t recreate. Here’s Edmundson’s metaphor and explanation:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

… I think that the best … lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it.

Some might criticize Edmundson for fetishizing the classroom and romanticizing the instructor. I’d suggest instead that he’s prioritizing the social aspect of education and crediting the instructor for skills that go beyond simple content knowledge.

It’s these skills — the abilities to sense the mood of the room, to alter one’s plan in midstream, to respond to spoken and physical feedback — that I’m becoming more and more interested in, just as so much of my field seems to be moving further away from any concern about them at all. Good teaching isn’t just about covering the material or completing the lesson. It’s about creating moments that stick in everyone’s mind — instructor and students.

Like Edmundson, I don’t think on-line education can deliver these moments. Even in real-time settings, the screens and interfaces simply dehumanize the effort. Students for whom education is more than just content mastery — i.e., those who appreciate the process of education — are going to continue to be drawn to colleges that offer the best opportunities for memorable moments.

Writing this post reminds me that I have to return to the concept of classroom dynamism . . .

 

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