NYT (May 2, 2002): Lessons learned at Dot-Com U.

I found this article on the fairly complete failure of online education to live up to the hype it endengered (is that a word?) in the higher education community to be very interesting. I’ve been hearing about the future of school and distributed education from my Dad, a professor in the business school at UNC- Chapel Hill, for quite some time; and I personally would love to see successful implementations of online courses, especially for technical topics.

In my case, I strongly suspect that higher mathematics would be the ideal topic, because I have no apparent ability to retain testable concepts from traditional mathematic education while at the same time having high aptitudes for procedural learning, symbolic logic, and analytic problem solving.

Indeed, in informal recollection of acquaintances’ experience, computer languages appear to lend themselves to this learning style very well.

However, I cannot imagine learning art history or english literature this way. The classroom is a stage upon which individuals with greater or lesser degrees of charismatic performance skill enact dramas of learning for the student audience; removing the element of charisma from “soft” topics would, I think, pretty much eliminate the motivation to learn them for many students.

Additionally, it’s important to note that for many of us, to the present, the years we spend at college are the most important formative years of our lives in terms of establishing our habits of work and of interaction with peers and figures of authority. A good friend of mine who, although very deeply self-educated, did not attend college in the conventional sense, pointed out to me that his difficulty in initiating and continuing romantic relationships may stem from his lack of practice: without exposure to the frenetic sex-and-mating-dance experimentation which is a part of that period of many of our lives, he lacks simple skills that the rest of us learned while still young enough to not fret over being stood up or turned down for a date.

Additionally, online community, although intense and of benefit to the verbally inclined, is brittle, as we all know from flame wars we’ve observed. This brittleness of community means that the lasting value of organically formed relationships simply can’t exist under present technologies. I’m not gong to say it just can’t exist when mediated by digital technology, but I am skeptical.

This brittleness of community is certainly in the interest of concentrated capital: if there’s no strong sense of organic community, there’s no effective means to organize for non-capitalist economic action, as in a union or a consumer organization.

This is in fact reflected in the basic concepts of online education as initially implemented: the courseware is developed under “work-for-hire” rules and therefore is the copyrighted intellectual property of the courseware distributor rather than the academic that developed the work. This is in opposition to the former practice of courses being the copyrighted intellectual property of the professor that oversees or develops them, as in the case of my father.

I rather imagine that this has something of an effect on the overall depth of effort that is invested in the given courses.

However, I’ve had reason to note over the past ten years that the rate of tuition increases for higher education has in fact increased from the rate ten years ago (the Seattle Community Colleges, in many ways a model of a 21st century continuing education system, raised tuition 11 percent for, I think, the third time in two years this past spring semester). It seems clear to me that we are well on the way to re-establishing economic limits upon higher education such that college returns to it’s historic status as the perogative of the extraordinarily ambitious and gifted or wealthy only.

Which in and of itself is both a giant step forward for the predominance of the Republican party in US politics and a giant step backwards for democracy, since high-school educated persons lacking college are polled as much more likely to vote Republican, and since economic power in the upcoming decades of this century is likely to rely increasingly upon the skills of persons with higher education, one must conclude that the interests of the less well-educated will be represented by persons with fundamentally differing economic interests and that therefore the interests of the less well-educated will be systematically ignored and demolished for the benefit of the individuals that hold real economic power.