At the school where I teach, I recently tried in vain to stick out a one-hour “webinar,” a cute name derived from a new wrinkle on an old trick, trying to hype the mundane by packaging it in new techno-wrappings. It ended up being a PowerPoint slide show narrated by nervous people speaking into really cheap microphones. Instead of just emailing their PowerPoints with narration supplied, this “webinar” dared to be a real-time event, but with none of the interaction of an actual seminar. So it became just another glimpse into the future of online tedium, which we are constantly warned will be the next manifestation of higher education.
Stripped of real teachers and the relative drama of real classrooms, online education promises to be a real snooze. I recall the much-touted fiber-optic Iowa Communications Network, which a decade ago promised to link far-flung rural outposts in the name of “connectivity.” We got connected all right, to the dullest form of instruction imaginable. Comatose students in fluorescently lit multi-purpose rooms could either watch the teacher strain to keep their attention, or view each other sprawled at long tables. Holding a discussion was like trying to swim in molasses.
But the ICN was rip-roarin’ excitement compared to the online classroom, which is really just an enormous, never-ending multiple-choice test peppered with scattered links to study materials. The instructor has become the equivalent of a help-desk figure, sometimes available for live chat. If you can’t find your answer in the carefully prepared list of Frequently Asked Questions, log on at the appointed time and cue up to chat with your real-live instructor, who is probably sitting in his or her underwear at home, watching a movie on cable while struggling to give the impression of emotional presence.
The universities who go this route run the risk of making the same mistake the Catholic Church made in the 1960s, when it decided to reform the liturgy by getting rid of the Latin mass and music. The church authorities wanted to get relevant, and in the process found that their customers lost respect for the whole process once it rid itself of mystery and majesty. Felt banners of Snoopy and Charlie Brown failed to compete with stained glass and carved wood. English hymns that sounded like advertising jingles didn’t sway the emotions the way Gregorian chant did. When it was too late, Rome found that they had thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and church attendance has never recovered.
Higher education is based on a set of agreements and expectations that ensure that the certificates granted mean something, that grades and course credits are transferable, and that tuition dollars will ultimately prove to be money well spent. Once there are no more real classrooms, it’s hard to imagine that faith in such a belief-dependent system will sustain itself for long. The ever-growing tsunami of student loan defaults has threatened to rush ashore for a while now, but in the event that many students who have paid for virtual degrees from virtual universities are unable to secure real employment at real wages, the emperor’s new clothes will be found to be virtual as well.
The university system we employ today is based on an English and European model, one that historically focused its efforts of a relatively elite group of the best-educated and brightest. Unlike today, there were no adjunct professors earning a nominal fee to teach. Being a professor was a high-status occupation, and college wasn’t for everyone. Today, grade inflation has rendered the four-point grade system a poetic ideal, with “cum laude” being mentioned so often at graduation ceremonies that it starts to sound like a mystical drone of the vanished Pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy.
When I was a freshman at Forest Park Community College in St. Louis, I asked my biology teacher a question about photosynthesis. She proudly recommended that I visit their new Audio Study Lab for help. At this state-of-the-art resource, I found an audio cassette (the latest in technology) marked Biology I, and after donning the massive headphones, eagerly inserted the cassette the machine. In excellent fidelity I was stunned to hear my instructor merely reading our textbook—surely this isn’t what they were crowing about. My problem wasn’t reading; I just wanted photosynthesis explained.
I left the vaunted Audio Study Lab sad for the whole lot of us. A lot of money got spent on those machines. But for someone like me, who could already read, it was all money down the drain. Hype.
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.