Radical change only appears radical within a short time frame.
That must be why discussions around technology and society are so often littered with phrases such as “radical transformation”, “a tsunami of change”, or “a new world.” Technology provides the perfect tapestry on which to weave these rhetorical tropes of major change because it is – almost by definition - sensationally sensory: we can literally see, feel, and experience the change before our very eyes.
Again and again, we return to our commonly-accepted myths on technologically-determined social transformation in order to understand our current conundrums and anxieties. Just as Gutenberg’s printing press ushered in the modern culture of mass production and the steam-mill invited industrial capitalism, the Web is (has been? will be?) making way for a series of radical changes, whether good or bad: the democratization of culture, the demise of social capital, and now, the rebirth of our University.
David Brooks is optimistic. Online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers, could extend the influence of American universities the world, and is capable of transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But the most promising aspect of this development, according to Brooks, is that it compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process beyond the transmission of information. The new online-offline university would blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, writing and collaboration. Professors, now free from the burdensome task of compiling and transmitting information to their students, could focus their energies on engaging with students, Socratic dialogue, collaboration and community.
Others are not so hopeful. Like other “radical transformations”, one person’s sea change is another’s tsunami. One of most common fears is that online learning will diminish the face-to-face community that is at the heart of the college experience.
“The teacher-student relationship formed in class allows for open discussion, giving the classroom a friendly and engaging ambience,” says one letter-writer, a sophomore from Fairfield University. “Online classes would not provide this.”
Humanities scholars are especially fearful, as online classes (so far) have elevated functional, skill-based courses such as web coding or accounting, marginalizing subjects in philosophy, history, and literature, which may be more difficult to avatar in an online format.
“What online instruction will never replicate is serendipity. So much growth and learning — far more than we account for, I think — happens as a result of unplanned, ‘offline’ encounters. These are integral to the magic of an on-campus, in-person college education when it is fulfilling its enormous promise.” The writer, a Music Professor, speaks of bumping into her students in corridors and the cafeteria, where the real learning takes place.
“Brooks’s ostensible goal is ‘quality,’ but this corporate supply-chain model would diminish, not increase, knowledge,” says another prof from University of Colorado, Denver. “Because knowing is a process, not a product, it is vibrant through the variegated scholarship of many local scholars. Students are inspired to learn by seeing scholarship enacted locally; their education will be badly compromised by accelerating their association of scholarly authority with a video screen image.”
Clearly there is a diversity of view points on the promise (or degeneracy) of online learning for the American (elite) University. But what all these perspectives seem to have in common is a shared premonition that whatever is happening, it is serious and profound and irreversible. Moreover, what is radical is the technology at the base of this development, the real driver of the transformation in university as it is in society:
“The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you’re seeing a flight to quality,” says Brooks. “The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.”
Radical change only appears radical within a short time frame. But slow transformation can be just as radical, and much more insidious. Is online learning really the thing responsible for diminishing the face-to-face community, the rich student-professor relationship, the dedication to learning? Or is it the rising tuition rates? The cuts in public education? The pressures on associate professors to “publish or perish” regardless of their teaching record or dedication to students? The fact that the bulk of the teaching that occurs on campus is done by graduate students – cheap labor who are professionalized into thinking that teaching is always a secondary annoyance to research?
It’s easy to blame technology for the demise of the ideal University. Its just as easy to prescribe technology as a panacea that will cure all of the University’s ills and bring it into the 21st century. But both perspectives ignore the real radical transformation taking place across the country: the political economy of the American University in a age of budget cuts, unemployment, and privatization. Indeed, the campus tsunami is already here. We just didn’t notice it trickle in.