Friday, February 1, 2008

Learning for Idiots: The Sham of Online Education

The 21 January 2008 edition of _U.S. News & World Report_ contains glowing, uncritical articles about the glories of an online college education. Gone are the days when only diploma mills like University of Phoenix (which proudly advertises that it is "`customer-oriented'"), ITT Tech, Nova, and others provided meaningless courses and degrees. Now, even established universities have succumbed to the allure of easy money from idiots seeking a golden ticket to fame and fortune.

The purpose of a college education is to gain a better life. Anybody who tells you that you go to college to get a job is either a sociopath or a liar trying to steal your money. As the numbers of students entering college began to decline and, for state universities, as state governments started cutting back on funding for higher education, to make up for declining funds, universities started marketing themselves to prospective students. Instead of focusing on what universities have always done -- preparing the next generation through helping them develop critical reasoning skills -- universities started lying to prospective students telling them they would get a good job by coming to their school. This marketing approach to education has only worsened and become more absurd with online education. The result is a sick miasma called "Student Consumerism."

Presciently, in 1997, George Cheney, Jill J. McMillan, and Roy Schwartzman, in "Should We Buy the `Student-as-Consumer' Metaphor?" in _The Montana Professor_ addressed the pitfalls of student consumerism and pointed out the problems with the commodification of higher education. While their article pertains to "bricks-and-mortar" classrooms, their argument applies, perhaps better, to the online experience. Three of their points fit particularly well to online education:

"the student-as-consumer metaphor actually distances students from the very educational process which is supposed to engage them"

On-line education both literally and figuratively distances students from the educational process. Obviously, there is no physical, human contact between the teacher and the students and none among the students. There is no spontaneous interaction, no nurturing, and no growth by both the students and the teacher, which is, in its truest sense, a symbiotic relationship. Secondly, reducing the process of education to simply a way of achieving a degree or a job perverts the entire purpose of education, to improve the lives of everybody involved.

"the provision of momentary customer satisfaction should not be confused with providing a high-quality educational experience or with ongoing educational improvement"

The entire point of online education is near immediate gratification. There is no desire to learn, simply to get through the course as soon and painlessly as possible to get the degree. Once the degree is acquired, the presumed raise or improvement in status will probably not be forthcoming. Talk about buyer's remorse. They have a meaningless degree, and their lives have not been improved one jot. They are made to feel like idiots.

"much can be lost in the translation of contemporary business-management fads to the experiences of higher education"

This is perhaps their most salient (unintended) argument against online education. The understood purpose of online education is to get a job. Students buy an online education. But, as the authors of this article rightly note, "Education, by contrast, is process oriented in that it ideally seeks to train people to continue to educate themselves." To put this another way, the purpose of a college education is not to get a job, the purpose of higher education is to "learn how to learn." There are no standards. Online instructors are typically paid by how many students they have in their courses. If they challenge the student-consumer, he or she, seeking the path of least resistance, will take the intellectually vacuous course, simply to get the "A." Entire colleges and departments within universities have built up their student numbers with this method. The teacher with high standards is punished and the students are short-changed.

If you simply want the possibility of getting a job, then, by all means go to technical school. If, on the other hand, you want a better life, go to a university and actively participate in your own education.

Don't be an idiot.

4 comments:

frharry said...

I require my students to read the Cheney article as a part of a writing assignment on the rise of the university. It inevitably prompts a good discussion. While you summarize it well and my experiences teaching undergrads humanities online would certainly bear out much of what you say here, I wonder if it's as black and white as you make it. Indeed, my own study of history (undergrad major, UF, 1976) certainly did not lead me to conclude that people are idiots.

University-of-Phoenix said...

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