Online education

California is pushing many entry-level college courses online.  I have so much to say about this that I don’t know where to begin.

I teach writing.  The parts of the class which always, always engage the students most vividly are group work, critiquing other students’ papers, individual conferences, and class discussions.  Taking those away would dry up students’ brains and hearts, and eviscerate the program.  A writing class could, perhaps, meet less frequently, maybe only half the time, but to remove personal contact in a writing course would be unthinkable.  (How many unthinkable things have I had to accept recently!)

The article referenced above projects removal of many adjunct professors. The very existence of adjunct professors as the backbone of many academic departments (mine included) is in itself a cost-cutting change. Adjuncts work like donkeys. We are poorly paid, and can only have a limited number of classes at each university, so adjuncts shuffle from school to school, teaching 2-3 classes in each place. I would hate to do the research on how much time these scrambling adjuncts have to spend on each student. Between commuting, attending various workshops and faculty meetings, planning courses presented in different academic systems, correcting papers, and attending class, there is not much time left over. Now they are even cutting out the adjuncts.

But my main point here concerns a workshop I attended last year on formulating online courses.  A professor of music was the workshop leader.  He made the point that formulating an online course is extremely time consuming, and must be thought through carefully, since there is virtually no student feedback on the quality of assignments and the class organization.  You cannot see how the assignments are playing out in real life. You just receive disembodied work from students you never get to know.

After reviewing the class he had so laboriously devised , I said, “Excuse me if you find this offensive, but this is all so easy. There is hardly any challenge to this course at all — I already know most of it myself, and I am just an amateur musician.” The professor gave a sheepish smile and conceded that online courses had to be simplified and made more transparently accessible, because the teacher can never know whether the material is being grasped and internalized or not.

If we, as a nation, want to cut the costs of higher education, then we should find other ways to do it, and I would begin with the egregiously high-priced textbooks.  I could so very easily give my class with no textbook, but the students are forced to buy one. All they need is a reference book, such as A Writer’s Reference or The Everyday Writer, where they can seek guidance for grammar, vocabulary, and rhetoric.

Online courses are not for the professor and not for the students — neither group prefers or enjoys them. They are to save the taxpayer some money, and it is up to us, the taxpayers, to determine whether we can afford to so drastically lower the standards of our children’s education.

A good teacher, not a bundle of information, is the student’s lodestar. If we think good teachers are too expensive for our children, we should fold our tents and retire from the world stage.

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