It is obvious that online education has cut out the bricks and mortar frills of a normal campus and replaced classrooms with a computer screen on top of a desk at a student’s home.
According to tech-employment experts, more than half the jobs in the United States would be automated in a decade or two. That should not come as a surprise. Robots are already working as telemarketers, replacing assembly line workers, whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centres, diagnosing medical conditions and performing minimally invasive surgeries. They are writing stories for newspapers and magazines, too.
For all of its ambiguities, technology has also made its way into the arena of higher education. Today, we are fascinated by videotaped lectures. We revel at the online learning format MOOC ‒ acronym for Massive Open Online Course. We rave at Coursera ‒ a venture-backed, education-focused technology company. We rant about Udacity ‒ a for-profit educational organization offering MOOCs.
Courses offered by these asynchronous programs do not take place in a real-time environment. As a result, there is no class meeting time. They enrol tens of thousands of “followers,” a Twitter term I prefer to use, because it offers a more apt label than “students.” The followers are provided with syllabi and assignments and are given a time frame to complete the course work and exams. Interaction with instructors usually takes place through discussion boards, blogs and Wikis.
So, what happens next? One clue might lie in the early nineteenth century Britain when the intrusion of mechanized technology into the textile production process ignited the Luddite rebellion, named after Ned Ludd, a mythical weaver who lived in Sherwood Forest. He supposedly broke two mechanical knitting machines to vent his anger against automation.
Incensed at the machines that they believed would replace them, the textile workers or the Luddites, as they were called, raided factories and sabotaged machinery by night, in the hopes of saving their jobs. The rebellion was a total failure. Nonetheless, the Luddites bequeathed us a namesake pejorative hurled at anyone daring to stand in the way of technological progress. The term Luddite has now become a synonym for technophobe.
I write this piece not as a technophobe, but as an open-minded professor sceptic about technology’s impact on the state of higher education. I have enthusiastically experimented with YouTube clips, Facebook course pages and discussion blogs in many of my courses. I appreciate the word processors, particularly TeX/LaTex ‒ a high-quality typesetting system designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. I value the usefulness of the Internet that gives me access to a treasure trove of information on an untold number of subjects, as well as technical journals essential for doing research. As a theoretical nuclear physicist, I am grateful for the open-source software, such as Mathematic that took the sweat out of high-level mathematical calculations.
Nevertheless, I am also disturbed by some aspects of online education’s impact on learning and scholarship. That is because from the vantage point of science pedagogy, technologies have still to offer an adequate answer to a question that should always be at the forefront of our conversations: How much does the whole person matter?
It is obvious that online education has cut out the bricks and mortar frills of a normal campus and replaced classrooms with a computer screen on top of a desk at a student’s home. While proponents of online learning would like us to believe that their ostensibly laser-like focus on higher education is admirable, one cannot help but wonder about the value of the traditional liberal arts college experience that is lost in the process.
As many have noted, the experience of a lecture hall ‒ usually a metaphor for college as a whole ‒ has not changed all that much in the last 500 years or so. Standing astride at the podium or writing on a chalkboard, professors edify the students by pouring forth their knowledge. Whether the endurance of this long-established format is either a virtue or vice depends on how close your postal code is to California’s Silicon Valley.
Against this age-old backdrop, enter the heroic innovators ‒ the techno utopians. In their view, online learning offers a solution to the various crises higher education is facing today.In particular, it accommodates adaptable scheduling, comfortable learning environment, variety of programs and courses to choose from, and strips down costs, so that education could be spread to people not privileged enough to afford the sticker shock of today’s tuition fees.
Is online learning really making good on the promises the techno utopians are claiming? Numerous studies over the years have shown that technology hurts students’ progress more than it helps. The studies conclude that students who rely solely on modern technology to get their degree in quick and easy doses often lack the ability, and more importantly patience, to think and study the old-fashioned way. They belong to a generation of digital natives who are apparently incapable of prying themselves away from their computer screens for even a 50-minute classroom lecture.
Furthermore, recipients of degrees from online educational facilities should be prepared to face a few initial hiccups, simply because there is a greater likelihood that their degree would be considered to have much lower value than the one obtained via mainstream classroom education. Consequently, prospective employers may be sceptical about the credibility of even well-known online learning enterprises that generally offer only certificates of course completion. They are, however, appropriate learning environments for adults with time constraints or busy schedules, or those who want to take enrichment courses to enhance their career.
Others have noted that online course innovations seem uniquely tilted in favour of fields like science, engineering and mathematics and less suitable for subjects like history, philosophy, or English. In that sense, technology has a bit of bias, as any bleary-eyed humanities professor who cannot feed a stack of essays into Scantron will tell us.
Even if online learning does get better at spreading knowledge, can it ever match college’s time-honoured strength in cultivating wisdom? Confronting that challenge requires us to answer the question of how much the whole person really matters. Technology seems to suggest it does not and should not. Indeed, the ideology of technology is to disaggregate the whole person ‒ to stretch human faculties to the point where space and time become irrelevant.
Arguably, college, at its best, is all-encompassing. It is a place where one undergoes intellectual, social and spiritual transformation. Yes, education happens in the lecture hall. An ineffable, unpredictable vibe that a great class discussion generates leaves its participants buzzing.
But education also happens on a theatre stage, in museums and art galleries, at an atelier, at a research lab at a hospital, in the study abroad program and many other places outside the classroom. It remains unclear how MOOC, Coursera, Udacity, or technology in general can help cultivate wisdom across all of these fronts and thus enrich the whole person that college education epitomises.
Although we may be at the dawn of a post-human era, as some have argued, I do believe that we are losing more than we are gaining from a technological hypnosis that has the potential to reclassify the teacher as a network administrator. If we could avoid bowing to the pressures to convert higher education into virtual reality, we will preserve something essential to our humanity, a sense of community.
To that end, we still need to be face-to-face with the students, to meet with them in groups for discussion, or to have one-on-one meeting with a student seeking guidance. These relational roles and human touch of a teacher can only be accomplished in a campus environment.
Having said that, are we facing our own virtual obsolescence just like the Luddites? Only time will tell whether we will become neo-Luddites or not. However, if the prediction and vision of automation is even halfway correct, I am afraid higher education in a campus setting may soon become redundant, as techno utopians are forecasting, when a one-size-fits-all online education presents itself to institutions looking to streamline the overhead. If that day arrives, it won’t just be faculty’s loss; it could be a loss of our students’ sense of wholeness too.
The writer is Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York