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College: Worth (And About) More Than Money

While discussing the focus of a book I’m writing about online education, my husband (who is not an academic) said that he “couldn’t imagine any Harvard professors ‘stooping’ to teaching online.” Paradoxically, that statement—with its indictment of online teaching as ‘less than’ — encapsulates both some myths and realities about higher education, generally, and online education in particular. There’s been much discussion in the popular press and within academic circles about the expanding divide between elite education and the ordinary, between students headed for prestigious research universities and liberal arts colleges, and those hunkering into state schools and community colleges. The divide may be heightened online: Harvard freshman don’t move into their Cambridge residence halls and log-in to class. They walk across campus. But each semester, two out of three community college students will take a class online. However, elite universities like Harvard are big players in online education when it comes to MOOCs — the highly visible and much lauded (or dismissed) free ‘massive open online course’ that can accommodate (and sometimes attract) tens of thousands of students. For example, Columbia, Stanford, and Princeton are just three of many prestigious schools partnering with the for-profit company Coursera to develop new courses; UC Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, and Boston University are representative power houses working with the non-profit edX. Faculty teaching MOOCs aren’t so much ‘stooping’ as they are stepping — stepping up to a new delivery system, new standards and methods of instruction, and an apparently limitless supply of students. Meanwhile, the trenches of online instruction belong to the community college faculty, the same set of educators who have always labored in the land of the ordinary, serving the least-prepared and the most financially vulnerable students. Clearly, “teaching online” encompasses a tremendous range of educational activities.

Indeed, as online learning —from homemade youtube videos, to Khan Academy and other tutorials, to professional development in the workplace, to college coursework and beyond – establishes itself as a central component of American life, it is essential to identify the key social, political, economic and interpersonal constructs directing how we conceptualize, deliver and experience this new form of education. My work is my attempt to initiate this discussion—a discussion I will argue that we are a little slow to be starting, but one that is vitally important for future equity in access to and quality of higher education.

Like much meaningful intellectual work, this project founds its origins in praxis—the day-to-day, paper-to-paper practice of teaching English and Gender and Women’s Studies online. My shift from teaching in a traditional, seated classroom to nearly entirely online was born out of necessity and schedule, a move that in many ways mirrors the concerns and decisions of online students themselves. When my middle child was a third-grader she began performing nearly full-time in theater and film. My husband and I wanted to support the success she was clearly working hard to achieve; however, the logistics of life on the stage for a 10-year old were overwhelming. At this juncture, teaching online as much as possible wasn’t just logical, it seemed like a lifesaver: I could conduct courses from coffee shops, grade on the go, and monitor online forums from the minivan.

Any rookie reading the above will recognize a half-baked plan when she sees one: things didn’t go quite so smoothly. I mention my semi-stumble into the field because that blind dive is emblematic of countless, constant decisions or non-decisions being made on individual, institutional, and social levels about online education. Learning online is ubiquitous. When we need to acquire knowledge, our turn to the screen is so automatic that it feels like second nature. Struggle with geometry homework at the dining room table? We flip open the laptop and within seconds, benefit from Khan Academy’s step-by-step tutelage. Instead of a phone call to my mother for Thanksgiving turkey tips, I can spend half the time and triple the tips I accrue online. What we lose, of course, in these transactions is easily apparent: the messy business of relationships, with all the complexities, surprises, problems, and riches therein. We tend to sidestep – or least, not fully consider—the role of relationships in knowledge’s transmission, allowing economy and efficiency to drive our educational choices, both large and small. This isn’t necessarily bad. Who isn’t a fan of efficiency? I’m not arguing that we abandon the pursuit of an efficient and economic education, I would simply like to see other ideals pulled into that orbit as equal players.

Right now, efficiency and economy are determining how online learning is emerging in both daily life (who calls someone for recipes anymore?) and post-secondary education, with little room to consider where relationships fall into our configurations. My focus is higher education; I’ll leave the wider world of youtube and life-long learning to someone else. Currently, there are ‘best practices’ for building “student-to-student” and “student-to-instructor” engagement in online courses, but these are constructs (artifice, even, as I’ll show) — not a nod across the room or a flash of encouragement. Students in elite institutions are benefitting from the social capital and skills that emerge within relationships. I use Harvard as an example, but even at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, my son, as freshman, reports that he wouldn’t even consider taking a class online. Indeed, this incoming cream of the engineering crop receives intimate and person-to-person tutleage and care. Students are required to take a freshman seminar, where just 20 students are paired with a professor, academic advisor and two graduate student mentors. That’s a 1/5 ratio of support, sitting at the table. In contrast, 2 out of 3 community college students take an online course each semester. These students — often ‘nontraditional,’ financially insecure, and under-prepared for college — don’t receive anywhere near that level of support, particulary (at least the way things currently work) when they register for an online course. At the community college where I teach, the ratio of support ranges from 1/28 to 40: one teacher for 28 to 40 students.

Of course, the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering has it precisely right: students are more likely to succeeed, flourish, within relationships, within connections between student and her larger community – from professor, to T.A., to academic advisor. Like the phone call to my mother for a Thanksgiving recipe, the give-and-take and complexities of these many relationships offers unique knowledge, singular insight, builds interpersonal skills and fosters confidence that an online existence cannot. Finding a way to make these relationships the center of online coursework at the community college level — a dialectic, meaningful and rich, (unlike a MOOC)– is vital if these, our most vulnerable students, are to succeeed where they want to be learning and are increasingly moving: online.

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