Am I Part of the Problem?

Probably most of us who love working in higher education are also critical of it. But the shifting intersections between universities and big business, public disinvestment, and the now common view of students as customers have all brought new urgency to our worries, guilt, and grievances.

With this in mind, the ambivalence many feel about online education may be obvious: Is online education merely enabling or exacerbating some of the worst trends in higher education? With the machinery of higher ed racing ever faster towards cheaper, interchangeable instruction, have I become part of the problem? For example, unlike most online teachers, my labor is not inexpensive — I have the increasingly rare luxury of being a tenured professor on a campus with a strong faculty union — but I am enabling an on-the-cheap infrastructure, one in which offices, classrooms and on campus amenities need not be calculated in at all.

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Asking tough questions about online education against this bleak backdrop seems like an ethical necessity, especially for those who, like me, have the privilege and relative security of tenure: How can I justify participating in, and benefitting from, a system that aims to cheaply reproduce educational credits? Isn’t higher ed reproducing a caste system in which privileged kids, mostly white, enjoy an enriched physical experience, complete with attentive professors, ivy covered walls, and intramural activities? Meanwhile our online students hustle to complete their discussion posts during breaks from their jobs at Chipotle and Walmart.

We tell ourselves, maybe, that we’re providing a special service to students who might otherwise have no access to college, and this is undoubtably true in some cases. Many of my students juggle jobs, family responsibilities and heavy class loads, a teetering balancing act that online convenience makes possible. But while it matters that some students benefit in exactly this way, their frenzied lives are are also partly caused by an ailing system. Why in the world is college so damn expensive? Why aren’t child and elder care more affordable? Why aren’t classes offered at times more convenient to working students with families? My point is the fairly obvious one that public higher ed is limping along within a social system that exemplifies values and priorities that aim to thwart it.

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Because the broader social context is part of what makes online education an attractive or necessary option, I wonder if we online teachers don’t have a special duty to question the role and value of online classes even as we provide such options to our harried students. It’s not that I think online education is inherently inferior to face-to-face, but surely working class students should not be forced into it. If we want to do our online work with integrity, then, we must not become defensive about online classes, but should actually encourage our colleagues and students to question it as well, even as we diligently serve our students within its limitations.

This is not a satisfying solution, but I’m not sure we can do much more than encourage and engage in higher ed activism. After all, the outsized emphasis on online education (which makes online ed an easy target), is merely one symptom of higher education’s decline. We also hear its gasps in the ever increasing number of courses taught by shamefully-compensated part-time instructors. It is not, then, as if our hands are somehow clean if we insist on teaching only in our physical classrooms.

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