California’s Little Red Schoolhouse: Higher E-Education on Line

THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION—WHETHER YOU WANT IT OR NOT:

VESTIGIAL THINKING/FUTURE THINKING

In the future—soon to be available for your grandchildren—there will be no classrooms.   The era of the Little Red Schoolhouse will be over.  As we watch the Budget Masters of the Educational Universe scramble for funds, we see them raise tuitions and cut back on enrollment—a truly antediluvian solution, for the flood has already occurred.   This Flood, our Deluge is called the “Depression,” characterized by lack of jobs, lack of homes, and subsequent lack of taxes to support public education at the college level.  This regressive action of raising tuition and lowering students seen on the part of California and other states can only be stopgap measure.  In the future, what the state will cut back and eliminate is the real prize, not the students, but the expensive luxury of having a faculty, fully laden with bennies—health and retirement and a bad attitude.   Do the math: faculty costs money, students bring in money.  If this were your budget, which item you would eliminate?  An expense or a source of income?  Strangely, the state has eliminated both the expense and the income and the students are being shortchanged.

Why are students, who really need to get out into the work force, being forced to compete for classes? Why are students asked to wait five or six years to graduate? College classes being cut, and inquiring minds want to know—why?  Because the faculty, even the part-time teachers and graduate students, are expensive, it is a simple short-term solution to eliminate people.  It is not the classes the university system in California is cutting, it is the faculty who are being eliminated and the effect of slashing the faculty is the cutting back of the number of classes.  Although the goal was to save money, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: cut the faculty, cut the classes, cut the students, cut the income.  Impossible as it seems, budget cuts can also result in a cut in income.

Is there a solution to this impossible problem the state has created for itself?  But wait, is what we see as a problem, cutting classes, really a solution in disguise.  Is the state is putting in action with a long range goal of getting ride of faculty on a permanent basis?  In the September 5th issue of The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Shea wrote about “The End of Tenure.” Shea discussed two recent books, Higher Education: How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We can do about It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia C. Dreifus and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities by Mark C. Taylor, whose writings on this subject I have been following.  Both authors question the effacy of tenured professors and what Taylor calls the “education bubble.” The fact is that university education is morally unsustainable.  It is simply immoral to ask either the students or the faculty to support or to countenance a system of tenure that privileges the few at the expense of the many.  It is untenable to put forward an ideal of education open to all, on one hand, while sustaining within the same system a hierarchical pyramid of exploitation of junior teachers.  Not only does building a structure based upon disrespect for the have-nots, the “part-timers,” on the part of the “haves,” the tenured members of the faculty have unfortunate ethical consequences, for as Shea remarked, “The labor system…is clearly unjust.”

But it is unlikely that the state of California cares whether or not young talent and new ideas are being crushed beneath the chariot wheels of the privileged faculty who, after years of expensive research paid for by taxpayers, will produce a book read by a dozen people (what Taylor calls “overspecialized research”.  The state is interested in eliminating an expensive luxury and that would be faculty, however privileged or exploited. So here is another question: How can it make any financial sense for every community college in the state of California to teach (re-teach) the same course in different classrooms at different times throughout the state?  Why should every California (University or State) campus offer the same requirements in endless multiples, semester after semester, year after year?  The result of such needless repetition visually is not unlike a mise-en-abyme, looking into an endless corridor of repetition and duplication of nearly identical courses.  In what universe does it make monetary sense to duplicate efforts on the part of many, many faculty members, to duplicate many, many classrooms, to build many, many physical plants, called campuses, to feed, house, shelter and support thousands of people for two, four, even ten years, counting graduate schools, when all these students could be taught in the realm beyond the campus—cyber space? Why contribute to pollution by building expensive physical plants for classrooms, which must be heated and cooled?  Why encourage students to drive to school, clogging freeways, expelling pollution?  In the past the answer would have been that student have to come to school, emphasis on “come” as in “get to” as in “arrive” as in “be there.”  But no more.  Technology has changed the tradition of “going away to college.”

The shift is already underway.  For at least a decade distance learning has been offered as an alternative or a substitute to on-campus learning.  Indeed, some professional schools are already all e-based.  Of course, these for-profit colleges have, in the eyes of academic snobs, given distance learning a bad name.  Tenured faculty in the University of California is solidly against the notion of teaching on line, but for all the wrong reasons.  It is true that e-education is the solution to the expense of huge campuses, bloated salaries of faculty and administration, exploitation of “lesser” teaching staff, damage to the environment caused by commuting.  It is also true that, whether they like it or not, the State will bring about learning via computers, slowly but surely.  The recent cutbacks in faculty will, like the last round of cutbacks in the 1990s, will be permanent.  With little fuss, more and more classes will be put on line.   It is well-known that many professors who desperately need the work have been developing on-line classes that are then the property of the institution which hired these people.  The professors get a (very) small salary for their services and the colleges get the money for as long as the class runs.  It should give the elite teachers some pause to realize that the classes of the future are being written by those they consider to “inferior” for tenure.

The objections of established faculty to distance learning are well taken, but for all the wrong reasons.  In an effort to reproduce the virtual effect of a virtual classroom and a virtual teacher, the set-up is for on line classes still that of the Little Red Schoolhouse, complete with the student, the textbook, and the teacher, lacking only the Little Red Apple.  Distance is the only difference.  The software for course management has tended to replicate the ideal or traditional classroom experience, valuing “class discussions” and “student participation,” recreating a “group of learners,” who must make an on-line appearance at a stipulated time.  The demand for student “presence” is intended to make sure that the students are actually “attending” the class. Ironically, there is no way of knowing if the “actual” student who is enrolled is “present,” or if a paid substitute is “taking” the entire class for a fee, while the “real” student is out having fun.  The “teacher” is present, making scheduled appearances, guiding and leading and teaching unseen students, but as those of us have taught these courses know, the time and effort expended by the virtual teacher explodes exponentially to the point that a cost-benefit analysis reveals that the costs to the teacher’s time greatly exceed any monetary benefits to the instructor.

In the past, such an investment in teaching for the beginning educator would pay off in a full time job.  But these jobs are in the process of being eliminated in favor of asking part time people to put in many more hour than they would in a “real” classroom.  The result is that many veteran teachers simply opt out of these rudimentary and sentimental cyber Little Red Schoolhouse classrooms, leaving the field to those willing or inexperienced enough to be unable to say “no.”  Because these cyber classrooms and course management systems are modeled on a web replication of a real classroom experience, their scope is deliberately limited to only what the individual teacher can handle.  In other words, the hours put in by the teacher is expanded but not his or her pay and not the number of students and  not the amount of money coming in to the school.

Already the teachers working on line are lowering the amount of education the students gets for the sake of their own survival. “Lectures,” for example, mandatory in a “real” classroom, have been eliminated on line. It is impossible to replicate the sheer amount of information given in a classroom lecture in an on-line situation.  In the virtual world, the students need only read the text and answer questions, engage in virtual discussions, and take tests based upon the book’s content.  Even without attempting to provide lectures as posts for the students to read as supplements or explanations of the textbook, the burden of caring for individual students, instead of presiding over a group, is overwhelming to the teacher.   Little is gained by the student, by the teacher, or by the school through continuing these old-fashioned methods in a format that is antithetical to the Little Red Schoolhouse.  One of the great virtues of distance education could be the sheer lack of the classroom.  In cyberspace, the student can progress at his or her own speed and finish a course in, say, a week and be done with it. And indeed, this is exactly how the for-profit colleges allow students to work.  But in the traditional colleges, the experience is drawn out over a semester because of sentimentality and nostalgia.  The professor who used to be able to leave the classroom and leave the students behind is now “on call,” like a country doctor, to the students, all times of the day and every day.

The current course management practices in distance learning insist upon in-class or on-campus methods of teaching that prevent a serious examination of the possibilities of cyber learning.  The only element provided on line by distance learning is distance or an alternative to attending a class on campus.  But Blackboard, Moodle, E-Luminate—all of these course management systems, no matter how nostalgically they are constructed—have the technological seeds for expansion in scope.  Indeed, the only factor holding back the capacity of the virtual classroom and its student enrollment is the lack of faculty willing, qualified, and trained for distance learning.  The only way to increase the numbers of students in a virtual classroom is to have the class taught by a team of collaborating teachers, a rather clumsy solution. At this point, we are stuck with two problems: the limitations of the teachers and the limitations of the time, a semester or a quarter, in which the courses are taught.  How are these problems to be solved?

Let’s start with scuttling the old model of the Little Red Schoolhouse.  We shall see that when the limitations of the Little Red Schoolhouse are eliminated, then all of its traditional elements will be wiped away—except for the one determining reason for the Schoolhouse: the students. If you eliminate the limitations of the virtual “classroom,” you can have unlimited students. Once you expand the scope of learning, not teaching, then the Little Red Schoolhouse dissolves. Since “teaching” such a course, to thousands and thousands of students, will be impossible for any one human being, the professor will also have to be dispensed with.  The result is the replacement of the faculty with course management systems, the campus for cyber-space: a good financial trade off for the state, and a vast increase in the number of student served and a consequent flood of pure profit revenue.  We are imagining Life After Faculty.

What would education look like?  Let us being by eliminating “education.” After all, we just eliminated the faculty.  We must rename “education.”  How would such a transformation work?  If this theoretically unlimited classroom is where distance learning is headed then Step One will be the development of canned courses. That is, the many duplicated courses in say, Survey of Western Art I, throughout the state will morph into THE COURSE, THE STANDARD COURSE for a particular subject. The personalized course, “brought to life” by an inspirational teacher who sparks the dullest pupil’s brain will vanish.  Traditional courses taught by individual teachers in his or her own way with his or her individual expertise will be replaced by THE COURSE, developed by a team of educators and experts.  Because the aging tenured faculty will not want to be left out of the inevitable process, the “educators” will be the soon-to-be retired specialists in a field, such as art history, who will, as a committee, write the course content, assignments, requirements and tests.  The “experts” will be technical advisors, who will set up the course materials, making them suitable for computer learning.

Cyber learning will necessarily be different and will take into account—unlike vestigial courses offered in today’s vestigial classrooms—the fact that the students are NOT in a classroom, are NOT learning through listening or through teacher demonstration or, in the case of art history, pointing at the object.  The students will NOT be limited in time by a traditional semester or quarter system, which will also be eliminated.  The students will NOT be in contact with a teacher or with one another. They will not be “on campus” at all.  The Second Step will obviously be the complete elimination of the faculty.  Thousands of individuals in all academic fields will be, as the British say, “redundant.”  No longer necessary.  It is possible that the elimination will take place through attrition: the Old Ones will be the educators on THE COURSE committee and the Young Ones will simple fall out of graduate school, as young seedlings fall on barren ground.  The Young Ones will have neither a course nor a campus to sink their roots into.  More on the fate of the Young Ones later.  As the Old Ones are retired, willingly or unwillingly, all of their particular courses will be replaced by   STANDARD CANNED COURSES, virtually provided, without individual teachers guiding and directing discussions and learning. Gone will be “real” classrooms with their uncomfortable desks, their chalkboards and white boards, their power point presentations, the Blue Books, their hierarchies of the Smart and the Dumb, and the presence of the all-knowing authority figure.

If on campus classrooms are eliminated and the students stay home, the impact upon the university and college campuses will be enormous.  Campuses will shrink to labs and administrative buildings, and even these buildings will be few in number, serviced by a small parking garage and perhaps a nice cafeteria.  The rest of the campus might become a verdant park, including playing fields for college sports.  The Administration of Higher Learning, now mainly computerized registration, will become increasingly centralized, with Deans and Chairs and Provosts, and the like, will become unnecessary relics. Along with the faculty, they will be discarded.   Administration will be mostly financial officers and tech personnel, for “staff” will shrink in numbers, although unlike the professors, the staff, like Cher, will not disappear.

Let us return to the impact of course management systems and the disappearance of the teacher upon education.  Step Three will be the re-definition of “education.” Many sentimental and nostalgic people have already recoiled from this picture of the future in instinctive horror, picturing the end of the college campus with their academic groves, the swath of green, the quad, crisscrossed by connective paths, the brick buildings, ivy climbing up the elderly walls, the book-laden students walking in clusters, scurrying to class, talking to friends, making connections, mating for life, with autumn leaves drifting down in anticipation of the first football weekend, leading to a solemn graduation ceremony, a rite of passage, a ceremony that requires medieval robes, complete with cowls and mortar boards, perched jauntily upon heads old and young….How could we let all this tradition go?

The answer is very easily and very quickly in the face of a faster and cheaper and more efficient alternative.  In the case of the automobile it was the people who made the choice: we gave away our horse, we turned our barn into a garage, the blacksmith became the auto mechanic, and we all learned how to drive motorized vehicles.  In the case of what we sentimentally call “education,” we will have little choice; we will not make the decisions.  The Budget Masters can and will make the decisions for us.  Finances and demographics will dictate the future.  Once software that is suitable for mass education without teachers is developed, there will be no turning back. Why maintain thousands of teachers and thousands of classrooms when all of these expensive physical entities can be eliminated?  Why maintain the verdant campuses and ivy covered halls if no one is at home?  Campuses with students will no longer make financial sense—in a very few years.

So what will cyber-education look like?  Without discussing the fate of college football and other sports, education will become mass dissemination of units of linked information.   So “education” will be replaced by “dissemination,” and “knowledge” will become “information.”  Thinking—one of the traditional academic goals and by-products of education—will become a SKILL SET to be learned or, shall we say, consumed and applied.  Courses traditionally have combined content and critical thinking and developmental and evaluative practices of reason.  Cyber courses will be split between the disseminating of information, which must be mastered, and the instruction of analytical skills, which must be learned.  Students will not be encouraged to critique, say, the economic system, but will learn of a variety of economic systems throughout time and will receive training in critical evaluation in an unconnected course.  The student may or may not apply any of the analytical or critical skill sets to any of the information gained.  What use the student makes of the courses taken is up to the student and his or her needs and inclinations.

Let us imagine the California college experience of the future.  The Community College system, now a centralized entity, will provide basic foundational two-year classes.  The California State University system, similarly constructed, will provide the third and fourth year required courses. The University of California system will provide specialized high-level courses for the various majors. In fact, over time, these levels could simply become all one University System, eliminating the now unnecessary separations. To the extent that separate campuses retain their names or still exist, these greatly reduced local sites will be used solely for the majors that need lab work—such as the arts, music and dance, and the sciences and sports.  Because most sciences can be done on line, we can envision campus life consisting of two dominant groups, the artists and the jocks.  Everyone else will stay home.

Where will “home” be?  Anywhere and everywhere.  Anyone can take these courses from any location.  All you have to do is pay.  Gone is the admissions process, except for the jocks, which need to try out and be selected for aptitude and athletic talent.  Admissions to a specific university traditionally have served two purposes: one is frankly elitist and the other is practical.  Elitist hierarchies have been created: certain University of California campuses are considered “better” than others because the students are “better” because their entry grades are higher.  The University of California campuses are, in turn, valued over their Cinderella sisters, the California State system for the same reasons.  The Community Colleges are used by all and scorned by everyone.  Practical limitations of campus space have resulted in limitations on enrollment, leading to selective admissions of more or less qualified students: the “best” go to Cal Berkeley and the “worst” go to a community college. The professors are paid accordingly, rewarded accordingly, and worked accordingly.

A professor at a UC School will teach three or four classes a year and will be paid three times more—at least—than their Cal State counterpart who must teach eight classes a year. A community college teacher will also have four classes a semester, but unlike his or her higher-up counterpart s/he will have no graduate assistant to help with research or grading. As one goes down the hierarchy, the workload and the inequality increases and the salary decreases, based upon the assumption that some professors are “better” than others and must therefore must be treated in a more privileged manner and that some students are “worse” than others and deserve a supposedly lower quality education.  All of us who have been through the UC system, taking the occasional Community College class, know that one can have an amazing teacher there in the “lower depths” and have a simply terrible teacher at the University.

But because the vestiges of that unjust hierarchy will undoubtedly remain, it will be the university professors who will probably survive, as the “educators,” inventing THE COURSE, putting the other teachers out of a job.  That said, the students would benefit the most from the elimination of this ancient architecture of privilege.  With admissions based upon campus space no longer necessary, the game will change.  The goal is no longer to pass on privilege from family to family, from social class to social class. The idea is now to educate the whole population.  Everyone starts at the same level and everyone finishes at the same level.  Excellence is now based solely upon how well one does in the courses.  There will be no hierarchies among campuses; there will be only one degree from one university.  Everyone else simply buys a course—pays for the information—on the open market.  The trick is that the purchaser “owns” the course only when the course is completed.  Initially what you pay for is the right to “inhabit” the class.  Think of buying a home: you provide a down payment, but you do not “own” the house you inhabit until you complete your obligations, that is, make your payments in full, paying off your mortgage.

Students will be allowed to “inhabit” a course for a limited period of time, say two years.  If the requirements are not completed in two years, then the class is “foreclosed” and the student needs to repurchase or move on to a more suitable course.  The student may get out of the course at any time, but no money will be refunded after a certain length of time. Because students must pay monthly “rent,” the course will cost more for those who take longer to finish. Think in terms of insurance payments on your home or fees on your condominium.  The course can be a cheap or as expensive as the student allows or can manage.  Certainly the smarter and more prepared students will finish faster and cheaper than those who have less aptitude or time, but the former group has always been advantaged over the latter group.  Some buyers may never put together a degree; some may purchase particular courses for specific purposes; others will obtain a university degree.  The revenue stream coming to the State will be large—because the student pool has enormously increased—-and will be continuous—because humans, by their very nature, will procrastinate on their courses and pay “rent” for months or even years.

Without any admission requirements, the student body, with the aid of translator widgets, will be international.  So what are the students buying?  The students are buying, not education, but access to information.  Unlike “education,” now a quaint practice in quotation marks, information will not come from textbooks, written by authority figures, will not be personal, ideological, or value-based.  Information will be disseminated with low literary levels—almost like bullet points.  But the lines of basic facts will be laced with links to documents of all kinds, from primary to commentary, all available and ever hyper-expanding for the students to peruse.  One of the arguments, made for decades, as to why women and people of color are excluded from course such as history and literature is that a full and complete portrayal of the role of African Americans in the history of the United States would take up too much time in the traditional three-hour class in a traditional semester.

There are only so many classroom hours available and the need to teach of the accomplishments, however dubious, of the white male must take precedent.  A single semester or a single year is insufficient to include Virginia Woolf or Georgia O’Keeffe in a course in literature or art.  Although the demand for the inclusion of women and people of color has resulted in the insertion of tokens here and there, American education has been traditionally Eurocentric, white and male.  One of the problems, a very real one, is the training of individual teachers who are forced to (over) specialize.  A professor of English literature will have concentrated on Chaucer and will be required by her university to publish or perish in a specific and narrow area of his or her field and is discouraged from developing other fields of concentration, such as contemporary Anglo-Indian authors.  In cyber space there are no such limitations—not the teacher’s time, not the teacher’s knowledge.  In the cyber world there are only links that propel the student into the endless pleasures of hyperspace.

Students will be required to learn the history of the United States as the histories—plural—of the genders and ethnicities of America.  The result will be “histories” written by experts found by links to articles or books: no one teacher is expected to attempt to cover all the materials.  The students will be given the benefits of many scholars in the field.  Information will be theoretically limitless.  There will be no professor in the classroom explaining why Langston Hughes cannot be taught because Ted Hughes is more important than Sylvia Plath and so on.  Authority is gone, guidance is extinct, mentors are absent, and as are the idiosyncratic and unqualified and abusive professors who try to impose their wills upon helpless students.  The student is the “activated learning agent” who browses and chooses what lines of information to follow, evaluate and develop.  Assignments and tests provide the only direction.

Somewhere in the cyber background are computerized evaluations of the students’ homework materials or perhaps vestiges of professors, now nameless survivors of the college and university system, who are given the tasks of writing assignments and tests and making sure the computer programs take note of the correct “key words.”  Of course, one can do an assignment over and over until the desired grade is obtained, and, ideally, one can learn through re-doing.  Some few of these students will be attracted to the possibility of endless learning and limitless information gathering.  Those will be the future scholars who may actually come into personal contact with others of their kind in a specialized area of the University system called “graduate school,” but there is no need to enter a campus.  Graduate school can be as “virtual” as undergraduate “education.” For those who remember the tyrannical and politicized and competitive atmosphere of graduate school, the simple pleasure of pursing a train of thought in solitary splendor in cyber archives will be quite sufficient.    Indeed graduate school will shrink back to its original dimensions: a place for professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and architects, and a place for those with the income and leisure time to concentrate on a field of study for a decade or more.

Once there are no jobs at universities at the end of graduate school, students will move on to other professions, leaving behind only the dedicated learners, the one who truly care about what we used to call “knowledge.”  They, the solitary, the few, will be entrusted with the task of creating new information by synthesizing a vast array of floating data and documentation.  But their task will be fundamentally different from current scholars who have the pretense of “originality.”  These postmodern writers will be the true bricoleurs, or should we say, bricoleurs who will admit to the fact: they do not create; they assemble units of usable information for the students to consume and assimilate.  Instead of being limited to “publication” in “peer reviewed” professional “journals” or university supported “presses,” the new cyber scholar simply posts his or her writing on his or her website.  Interested readers can find this work and can make contact with the writer to ask for additional information, to exchange thoughts and resources and so on.

People who wish to be this new kind of scholar can develop their own specializations within scholarly territories that are now “unguarded” and open because “gatekeepers” can no longer function.  Information is now everywhere, free for the taking. True, we all have memories of that special professor who mentored and encouraged us but they will continue to exist in cyber space.  In cyber space, no close-minded professor can tell the cowed graduate student what s/he should or should not read, what s/he should or should not believe. Authority has almost no meaning on line.  The information “market” determines what it needs and takes it.  Just as “education” has become redefined, professor eliminated, the “student body” also becomes a sentimental artifact of the past.

This elimination of one of the major means of socialization of young people (and old people) will probably be only an extension of what will be happening in the workplace, with more and more people working from home.  The trade-off is losing an incompetent or tyrannical professor or boss and gaining autonomy and independence and success based upon merit rather than favoritism or looks or privilege.  The losses must be considered and constitute a real problem: money is saved, revenues are increased, the population is more efficiently informed and trained, but human contact is drastically altered.  Perhaps the germ of human socialization in the future is already upon us: sites like Match.com provide hook-ups for dating, but there is no reason why there could not be similar sites for college students who will meet on line and create social group.  Although Facebook was set up so that linked students could study for an art history exam, this social network is not specifically directed towards students.  Perhaps one can envision as a positive possibility to increase of one’s circle of acquaintances being anywhere in the world.  People are resourceful in their desire to be together.  They will find a way to create new kinds of communities.  We can call this phenomenon “global info-cation.”

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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One Response to “California’s Little Red Schoolhouse: Higher E-Education on Line”

  1. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of
    my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this.
    I’ll forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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