August 6th, 2012
“Conflicted” (full title: “Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012“) is the name given one of the two major survey reports released this summer on how folks feel about the impact, on higher ed, of technology generally, and of online learning specifically. It was co-sponsored by Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed and was released in June. The other survey, released in July, is titled “The Future of Higher Education” and was released in July; it was co-sponsored by The Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University.
These are the surveys I mentioned at the end of my last blog entry. Together they paint an interesting picture of attitudes and prospects, particularly because both forced respondents to choose between opposing positions with no middle ground. As the authors of “Conflicted,” with their special attention to faculty attitudes put it,
Our experience in surveying faculty has shown that they are very good at providing well-thought-out and nuanced responses. They are less successful at providing unambiguous responses without qualifications. One question in the current study was purposefully designed to force just such a response; it asked, “Does the growth of online education fill you more with excitement or with fear?” Only two responses were possible: “more fear than excitement,” and “more excitement than fear.”
Nearly 60% — to be precise, 58% — of the faculty surveyed (over 4500, representing all types and classes of higher ed institutions) reported feeling “more fear than excitement.”
Interesting. Even more interesting is the way the other survey forced the same “choice of sides” in asking a more mixed audience what they thought things would be like in 2020 (and I quote from the survey’s own overview):
In the Pew Internet/Elon University survey of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, 60% agreed with a statement that by 2020 “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources … a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.” Some 39% agreed with an opposing statement that said, “in 2020 higher education will not be much different from the way it is today.”
Though their targets are different, it’s tempting to see a fearful symmetry between the two surveys, one that’s hardly counterintuitive (the more change perceived, the more fear generated). But that might be missing the point … about how the surveys might be missing the point. For why, let me (with your indulgence) quote again from Jonathan Rees”s essay “The Obsolescence Question,” featured in the blog entry just prior: “Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession.”
That’s a position most of us probably don’t find weird or anomalous. Most of us can probably identify, maybe daily, with the alternating of hope and fear Rees articulates. That’s hardly a scientific survey, but it is a way of allowing an important point: that,given “the maturation of online education” (Rees’s phrase), an academic can regard the future of higher ed with profound ambivalence, oxymoron or not.
Though those recent surveys do register a strong sense of change in the air and skepticism — even fear — about its effects, it’s that ambient ambivalence that they miss.