Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

Welcome to the Jungle

Full vitae front jungle illustration

Image: iStock

In October, the Faculty Senate at George Washington University released a report on the quality of online education there. The context was a lawsuit filed by four students in the university’s online master’s program who argued that they were paying too much for a degree that was inferior to the bricks-and-mortar version. The senate report was highly critical of campus oversight of online offerings and made a number of suggestions to assure that their quality would match that of face-to-face courses.

As someone who has spent years bridging the worlds of online and traditional education, I am extraordinarily sympathetic to those findings.

Every faculty member in the world ought to be able to get behind the report’s recommendation that "Faculty should be fully participative in developing, monitoring, and terminating online, hybrid, and off-campus programs." I’m working at my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning right now, trying to teach my fellow faculty members how to use various tools so that they can do precisely those things. Online education without faculty participation is likely to be no better than its lowest-common-denominator classes — ones that fly with the institution’s accreditor only if they aren’t examined too closely.

At the same time, whenever I talk with faculty members who are reluctant new converts to online teaching, or still skeptical about it, a part of me wants to quote Bruce Willis as the fish-out-of-water NYPD detective John McClane: "Welcome to the party, pal!"

That’s because some of us have been dealing with direct competition from online courses for more than 10 years now. I teach at Colorado State University at Pueblo, which has an entirely online sister campus that delivers many of the same courses offered on my campus and at the university’s Fort Collins campus, but with an overwhelmingly adjunct faculty. There’s also competition from a program in Colorado called GT Pathways(GT stands for "Guaranteed Transfer"). Under that program, if a student takes a particular set of required courses at one of Colorado’s two-year colleges, for example — assuming that student earns the minimum required grade — those credits have to be accepted at all the other public colleges and universities in the state

Such developments are undoubtedly good for students who want to complete college. For faculty members at traditional campuses, however, the prospect of direct competition from anywhere can seem rather scary. That’s particularly true when it comes to online education, which leaves professors asking questions like: What about the standards of online courses? Can we be certain that classes taught elsewhere cover the material that we think is absolutely essential in our own versions of those courses? Can the bureaucrats in higher-education administration — both on the campuses and in state government — prevent a race to the bottom from breaking out?

I’m not going to even begin to try to answer those questions, because your guess is as good as mine. However, I will tell you something I do know: Whether or not we like the answers we’re hearing, the changes they reflect in higher education are here to stay. Pretty soon, "Welcome to the party, pal" is going to become "Welcome to the Jungle." And unless you’re really close to retirement age, you and every other professor in every discipline are going to have to prepare for the forthcoming life-or-death struggle.

How? I actually have a few suggestions.

Upgrade your teaching. Don’t become one of those professors who lectures off of the same set of yellow notes that you’ve been using for the last few decades. I stopped lecturing entirely, but even if you still do lecture here and there, recognize that what was good for you as an undergraduate is not necessarily good for today’s undergraduates. That’s not because students are weaker but because the context of what people are willing to sit still for has changed since you were in college.

I’m not saying that phones have fried the millennial generation’s attention span. What I am saying is that the breadth of the population that’s going to college now includes plenty of people who might not have gone during your day, and they deserve something better than the same old tired lectures to help them get through.

Try a little technology. Consider incorporating at least a few of the wonderful tools that the internet has to offer into at least a few of your courses. In my own classroom, I keep coming back to the web-annotation program Hypothesis, and the digital-publishing platform Scalar, but there’s also more complicated stuff like ArcGIS, or running your own installation of plain old WordPress for the truly ambitious among us. Even the popular office-messaging system Slack has multiple possible educational uses.

I recently made my way through Virginia Heffernan’s terrific book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. To all-too-briefly summarize just one section in order to explain the title, music is now more accessible than ever, but it doesn’t sound particularly rich when you hear it only through tiny headphones. The first part of that sentence is the magic; the second part is the loss. Lots of faculty members are unduly hung up on the loss that online teaching can represent, but have never considered whether magic can actually happen. After a long, serious study of online courses, I have come to believe that it can.

Teach online. That segues nicely into my last suggestion. Every academic who takes pedagogy seriously should try teaching online themselves. Why? Because, as I noted in a 2016 column: "The overall environment in which you’ve been teaching has changed." Cede that terrain to people who, for whatever reason, are going to create classes that are nowhere near as good as yours, and we all lose. At that point, the law of the jungle will kick in, and your job — along with your entire college or university — may very well be eaten.

Not all online classes undermine the quality of American higher education. Done right, they can be a useful tool to get more students than ever through college, and teach them more about the vast network of closely linked technologies that will only get more important in all of our lives as time passes. In the meantime, academics need to recognize that these changes are going to continue, no matter how loudly we choose to whine about them.

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