Crossposted with Teaching Thursday.
It was really exciting to see the interaction between John Tagg and Anne Kelsch who are two of the most thoughtful commentators on higher education to grace this humble blog. Their discussion revolved around a recent Washington Monthly article entitled "College for $99 a Month" which reviewed the education model offered by companies such as Straighterline. My post today is less of a critique of their posts and more a complement to it. I want to offer a slightly different perspective on the same article.
First, one aspect of the original article that was not noted by either Tagg or Kelsch was that introductory level classes have evolved over a particular trajectory in part to satisfy the changing needs of university faculty. Introductory level classes play a key role in the university ecosystem, according to the Washington Monthly article, by providing income that supports upper level courses, research (particularly in the humanities where external funding opportunities are relatively scarce), and even the physical facilities and services which have become synonymous with university life. So, the nature of these lower division courses and, in particular, their size has become an important feature in university fiscal ecology; changing one part of the ecosystem will necessitate changes across the ecosystem. This is not say that this is a bad thing, but we are all probably aware that the balance between teaching and research is one of the key issues at stake. Introductory level courses are frequently taught by non-research faculty (often adjuncts). Redesigning introductory level courses, making them smaller, or changing their relationship to the rest of the curriculum are expensive and potentially time consuming tasks that take time away from research, writing, and other faculty tasks. The university ecosystem is a delicate thing! The advantage that companies like Straighterline have is that they employ individuals who are charged only with teaching. They can offer courses so cheaply because they don't have to manage the complex ecosystem of the modern university.
Next, if changes in the way that we teaching lower level classes will be this expensive and disruptive process within the university ecosystem, we have to consider quite seriously who will bear the costs. The democratization of higher education represents one of the great myths of the American success story. At the same time, higher education likes to cling to its elite roots. Many of the expectations surrounding university life redound with ideals from the earliest days of the modern university. As Tagg points out when he asks "what is college for?", there is not a single answer that describes the role of college in the development of all students. Our calls for a university that develops students in accordance with the age old principles of humanism will not necessarily ring true with our entire student body. In many ways, companies like Straighterline which offer bargain basement higher education packages cater to students who have radically different expectations of their college education. Universities have long ago absorbed crucial aspects of vocational education which practices across the world have demonstrated can achieve some degree of success without placing emphasis on critical thinking or intellectual development and focusing on the mastery of a set of practices or body of content. While we can argue that there are better and worse ways to communicate and teach content, the basic goals of these degrees and experiences are substantially different from the goals of fields like history, English, or math. My point here is that universities have pulled together a wide range of disciplines under a single roof. At some point in the past, this may have led to economies of scale where facilities and certain core resources could be shared among these divergent disciplines; today, we might argue that this forced marriage of vocational, practical, theoretical, and philosophical education works counter to the basic democratization of higher learning. Maybe Straigherline can do as well, if not better, than tradition bound university practices which, and here's the catch, are expensive, rooted at least partially in lingering elitism, and perhaps maintained as much for their place within the university ecosystem as any genuine concern about producing a sustainable, well-educated society.
Part of my evidence for this (and it's a bit circular) is the growing Luddism of many university faculty. (This critique does not apply, obviously, to Anne's and John's posts; they both demand that we reformulate the very nature of college education which would, in part, undermine the position of companies like Straighterline.) When I use the term Luddism, I don't mean it to describe an irrational response to technological change, but rather in terms of E.P. Thompson's reading of Luddite radicalism in 18th century England. He argued (bear in mind I'm an Ancient Historian) that the Luddites were less concerned with the industrial revolution and the mechanization of the cloth production, per se, and more concerned with the incredibly deleterious effects of these changes on the social fabric of their communities. The violent and superficially futile protests were socially calculated acts meant to highlight the plight of communities which were suffering grievously as a result of industrialization. Today, I often wonder whether our protests against changes within academia represent a kind of Luddite response to an increasingly dynamic educational environment. The coming of the $99 university degree may not be inevitable, but university much face the changes brought about by technology, the increasingly challenging global economy, and a dynamic workforce which struggles to relate to the elitist rhetoric that has come to dominate the discourse of higher education. What I am suggesting is that the response to challenges from places like Straighterline tend to be geared more toward shoring up the existing university ecosystem rather than understanding how such challenges (which are basically symptomatic of larger changes in how education and information is understood in the global economy) will inevitably produce a radical restructuring of university life.
To return to my first observation: that companies like Straigherline do not simply offer a new model for teaching university level classes, but threaten to disrupt the institutional fabric of university life by separating teaching from research, undermining long held faculty privileges (office space, access to libraries, relatively generous pay, support for humanities research, et c.), and repositioning higher education to serve students who view the college degree as a kind of vocational or practical training. These seismic changes are equal parts terrifying (hence the Luddism) and exciting (hence the quality of Anne's and John's response), but above all demand wide ranging discussions of the kind that our Teaching Thursday blog seeks to encourage and support. So, if you have an opinion, idea, or comment, post it here or drop me or Anne Kelsch a line and we'll make sure that your post appears on Teaching Thursday.