The computer ate my professor: Bricks for the elite, clicks for the rest, by Donald Joralemon

Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013


In a Massive Open Online Course-inspired world, a few talented academic stars digitize their lectures, upload them for the multitudes and then an army of academic worker-bees stand by to respond electronically to the questions of course participants. Exams are monitored by web-cam to discourage fraud. Credit is earned toward a diploma from Virtual U, whose profits grow with the number of enrolled users.

Eventually, home-grown “mentors” — we used to call them teaching assistants — will lose their low salary, time-clock jobs to eager workers in lower-wage countries. Outsourcing will have come to the academy. Even the most venerable colleges and universities will be seduced by the promise of easy money.

Those ivy walls and lecture halls are so last century. The new world requires on-demand learning and a focus on job training. I want my professor on the screen, not in the flesh.

The economic argument for online courses is powerful. The cost of attending a college or university is racing far ahead of the earnings of the parents who pay the bills, and the less expensive community colleges can’t handle all the victims of tuition shock.

Those who can afford to do so will probably still send their children to the elite institutions that stubbornly adhere to the old educational model; those who can’t will log in to learn.

We will convince ourselves that this isn’t inequality by trumpeting the scholarly achievements of those whose lectures are made accessible at low cost. Get the best, but pay the least. It’s the digital big box store for higher education.

A better answer to unaffordable college bills is a return to the programs that made a quality undergraduate education possible in 1970 for a kid from a single-parent, lower-middle class family: public support for the enterprise.

We have slashed and burned our way through the state and federal programs that once tilted in favor of scholarships over loans and had eligibility criteria that included the middle class. Only the wealthiest and poorest among us are still standing in the race for financing the college experience. It isn’t a matter of whether we can afford those programs — that’s just about priorities — but rather what we have lost by refusing to sustain them.

There is also a critical role for higher educational institutions to play in the affordability challenge. There should be serious disincentives to spiraling administrative budgets, rewards for holding tuition increases to the consumer price index and a stepping back from the competition for the campus with the most country club attractions. The graduates who underwrite so much of the actual costs of a college education should condition their continued support on their alma mater having a strategy to bring costs under control, with a measure of accountability for doing so.

Providing these institutions with a new revenue stream via online courses will not encourage budgetary restraint.

I’m glad I’m not far from retiring from my professorial post at a small liberal arts college. I probably wouldn’t make it to the ranks of celebrity scholars whose lectures are bought for mass consumption and I wouldn’t have enjoyed punching the time clock for online consultations with disembodied students. It may be quaint and old-fashioned, but I actually look forward to dialog and engagement with the young people who select my classes. I’m no Luddite or digital dinosaur, but it matters to me that we are all present at the same time and in a real place for the educational experience.

My bumper sticker: Education, there’s no app for that!

Donald Joralemon is a professor of anthropology at Smith College in Northampton.


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