In this op-ed on the New York Times, Jeff Solingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education points to a few concrete, urgent actions that universities and colleges across North America should take, in order to weather the financial crisis affecting institutions of higher education.
When it comes to education, I find myself consistently siding with the “conservatives”. It is not that I dislike change per se — quite the opposite, if anything; and there is no reason why teaching, and more generally the way society organizes and administer the education of its youths, should not be constantly evolving, in a way mirroring cultural and economic transformations. However, I also think that due to its very importance, education is something with which we should tinker as little as possible, and only when hard evidence warrants it. Making changes to the educational system requires time (measured in decades), not only in terms of sheer implementation, but especially when it comes to assessing their effectiveness.
The damage imparted by an educational reform ultimately deemed flawed, on a number of generations, is a terrible price to pay to social experimentation. This is why education leaders and politicians should adopt a healthy skepticism, and embrace the hippocratic “First, do no harm“ motto of medicine.
Perhaps this is why I am wary of some of the recipes suggested by Solingo in his op-ed, aimed at revitalizing college and university education and bringing it up to speed with a changed world. While I can only applaud his call for reclaiming “academics as a top priority”, with a clear reference to the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of administrative expenses, which “have grown faster than instruction on many campuses” , the main point of his editorial is an exhortation to college and universities to embrace the use of technology in the classroom, as well as to offer more content online. There is a sense of urgency in Salingo’s recommendations, mostly because, according to him, universities have to “catch up” quickly, following a decade of inaction (those dreadful nineties).
On these two points, I think that great caution should be exercised, lest we wish to go through decades of ineffective education, followed by decades during which we try and go back to the way things were. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that the traditional model of education is perfect. It is entirely possible that classroom instruction, with which we have all grown up, that has existed for centuries and has served society well, is inexorably destined to become extinct, swept away by the information revolution that has been taking place before our eyes for the past two decades. It is entirely possible that two decades from now there will be no more classrooms, libraries, campuses, that education will be entirely online, that students everywhere will learn by watching content delivered remotely, or recorded, take tests on the internet and attend virtual graduations.
On the other hand, it is also entirely possible that none of that will happen.
Most of us agree that some, possibly a lot of human activities, will not go virtual any time soon, and may not go virtual ever, typically those based on some minimal level of interaction among individuals. And it is not as if there are no data justifying some skepticism. Online universities have existed for quite some time, and while they certainly have a place in the educational landscape, few people would contend that they represent an equally effective alternative to traditional classroom teaching.
The fact that a lot of reputable “traditional” universities are offering more and more online courses, is no reason for every university to follow suit. Fads exist, in education like in any other human enterprise.
The experience of online realities (such as Second Life) is quite telling, in this respect. Second Life (SL) is now almost a decade old. It was launched among much hype, as a tool with the potential to open new horizons to education, commerce, research and what have you; multinationals, major high-tech firms such as Microsoft eagerly established a presence therein, for fear of being left behind what was branded as nothing short of a “revolution” in the way business would be conducted. By now they have practically all pulled out. By all accounts, SL itself is in a state of abandon, after failing to deliver upon its promises; this is a telltale sign of the great challenges that going virtual poses.
While I agree that internet technology has a place in the broader context of college education, I remain convinced that campus-based institutions should make use of it sparingly, mostly as an aid to classroom-based instruction. Instead of trying to compete with them (a race to the bottom that traditional universities simply cannot win), universities should clearly differentiate themselves from for-profit online diploma mills. Great emphasis should be placed on the difference between learning and obtaining a degree, and on the superior educational experience of classroom-based instruction. The day we academics no longer believe that sitting in a classroom, listening to a person explaining and answering questions from other students, is the best way to learn, then we will know that universities as we know them have come to the end of the line. But until then, until hard data convincingly show that students learn more by going online instead of going to school, there is no reason for universities to try to increase online course content beyond what they are all already doing, other than to keep up with a fad.
Same goes for instructional technology. At this point in time, at least in North America the use of computer technology in and out of the classroom, for example, is no novelty anymore. I was an enthusiastic early adopter in 1996, and have made extensive use of it myself since, and while I am the first to admit that it renders some aspects of teaching easier, chiefly the running and administration of large-enrolment courses, its real effectiveness in terms of content delivery and learning should not be exaggerated.
My personal observation is that students do not learn more and/or more quickly just because widgets, movies, animations, online lecture notes and power point presentations are put at their fingertips. None of these things are replacements for attending lectures, reading the textbook, thinking about concepts on one’s own, discussing them with instructors and fellow students, doing the homework. Students who are willing to put the time, do well, those who are not do not — no technology will change that state of affairs, making a video game of education is not the way to go.
How much “technology” is needed is a choice that universities and colleges should leave to the individual instructors. Any general policy or guideline, attempting to shove preconceived notions of what teaching should be down the throat of those who face students every day, is wrong-headed (if that is being “conservative”, fine, call me one).
 If anything, I wish that Solingo had devoted a much greater share of his editorial to this aspect, seeing by many of us as the most important issue with modern time academia (see here for instance) instead of a single, cautious paragraph, bordering on the perfunctory.