Thursday, November 11, 2010

Beyond Online Education

College for profit is a bad idea. Even with the best of intentions, it invites the "consumer model" of education, a model that implies that students are "customers" and teachers are "service providers." This conception compromises the other half of the instructor's role, because the instructor is not just the person "helping" the student to succeed, but is also the "gatekeeper" who prevents those who cannot succeed from advancing with those who can. When instructors become tutors and cease to be gatekeepers, the entire system becomes meaningless, because the gatekeeper role is the only thing that makes a degree worth a damn.

There is a congressional investigation going on right now that is very much needed and very much in the right. For-profit colleges haven't undone the entire American system of education, far from it -- in fact, the saddest thing about people being suckered into attending these "colleges" is that, when they graduate, people will not take their degrees seriously. We do not live in a world where people confuse or equate a degree from Kaplan with a degree from the University of Name-Your-State.

But it's worse than that: these for-profit college-peddling corporations are targeting the people most ignorant of what college is, what a degree means, and what it can get you in material terms, and then getting the US taxpayer (you and me and all of us) to front the money, at extremely inflated rates. When the student ends up 100k in debt and earning the same $8/hour a high school diploma merits, we all take the hit. It's appalling.

But it gets worse. Imagine if I got paid according to my students' grades. Imagine: if I had a semester where all my students earned A's, I'd get paid more than if it were a mix of A's, B's, and C's. Obviously that would be a terrible idea. Suddenly it would be in my clear financial self-interest to give up my gatekeeper role and let everyone through with quadruple-gold-stars. This is what for-profit education does, only on a large scale: the teachers aren't the ones with the financial incentives, they're just the ones being bullied (and having their grades changed) by people who DO have financial incentives.

An education is not a commodity, it's a series of trying experiences a person willingly submits to in order to come out the other side a completely changed person. If the only difference between you and a brain surgeon were that the brain surgeon could pay a fee and pass a test, you would not allow her to operate on your brain. The brain surgeon has to actually be a better kind of person, a person who has suffered through and survived multiple tests and trials over many, many years, tests and trials that involved sacrifice and focus and the ability to forgo all pleasures and distractions in service of an abstract goal that is not immediately rewarding. That's not something you can become "on weekends, online, in your spare time!"

Brain surgeon is the most extreme example I can give, because it's a position that puts the person in life-and-death control over the most sophisticated organ in your body, the one which contains your very self, your very being. But if your heart and soul is invested in a company you built from the ground up, you would want anyone you hired as a regional marketing manager to be the "brain surgeon of regional marketing management": in other words, that person must have the same qualities, even if you require them in slightly less intense form. And how do we prove that a person is serious, committed, focused, and able to put work ahead of play for years at a time?

Personally, I believe that everyone should have a chance at an education, and that the society (you and me and all of us) should gladly pay for it through our taxes. I even believe that people who flunk out should be allowed, at 4-5 year intervals, to take another shot at it. That's because a society is only as good and advanced and wealthy as the people in it, because the successes of peers and family members encourage more success, because every invention, innovation, business, or even just full-time-job added to the economy creates more opportunities for other people. In other words, it's in all of our best interests to support the individual interests of everybody.

But the education that gets paid for has to be real. The American Taxpayer's money should be spent investing in the future of the people of America, not funneled into the profit stream of a corporation whose interest in education is somewhere between minimal and none. Colleges and universities serve societies: the business owners who need solid employees, the investors who entrust their money to individual entrepreneurs, the patients who need doctors, the kids who need teachers, the litigants who need lawyers, and the hard-working students who do not want the meaning of their degrees diluted by the for-profit "consumer model" approach.

Personally, I'm a huge advocate of technology in general. I'm looking forward to controlling devices with a chip in my brain, and letting an AI drive me around in a shared car. But there is one technology I cannot get behind, and that is exclusively online classes. I love incorporating online involvement into a class that also meets in person, but a class that's all-online is very bad idea, in my opinion: that's because I believe that an education must be demanding, challenging, and ultimately self-changing. If a course is structured in a way that keeps it from becoming too much of a bother in your life, then the course is structured to keep it from being of value.

I believe that people want to be challenged. I believe that they even want to be changed. Everywhere I look I see people paying for "experiences": why else would we find people in dojos, or yoga classes, or at the end of bungees? Why else would we find Americans in 2010 making their own clothes, or killing their own game, or spending full days slaving over the kind of elaborate meals you rarely find outside of Kitchen Stadium? People want to do things they're not sure they can do. They want to suffer through trials, and they're willing to fail: they know that without the possibility of failure, success means nothing.

Ultimately, an education that means something must be an all-encompassing creative challenge, a daunting experience, something that changes who you are and how you think of yourself. These for-profit, largely online colleges promise to change people's lives materially, they promise houses, vacations, a brand-new Lexus, and they largely fail to come through on that promise. To me, though, it is worse that they don't even try to provide the more important and essential benefit of education, or even tell prospective students about it: that it changes who you are, how you imagine, what you're willing to try, and how you're able to be.

America doesn't need the same old people with online degrees; America needs the kind of creative and motivated actors who know, because they already have in the face of challenge transformed themselves, how to transform a society.

1 comment:

syeds said...

Before invention of computers and Internet they were very few sources of employment., but today we can work right from our homes by online jobs.

Anyway nice article, best for students to encourage them.

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