Faculty Fears

August 3rd, 2012

Hypes breed gripes. My last entry noted how the buzz about great honking MOOCs (massive open online courses) had provoked jeremiads like “The Trouble with Online Education,” a bitter NYT op-ed that didn’t bother to discriminate between MOOCs and much more intimate, interactive online courses, essentially saying, “A plague on all your houses.” I was more taken with a more measured elegy to traditional teaching titled “The Obsolescence Question” appearing in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week.

I expected the title’s question to be a rhetorical question. That, after all, is my line: “Faculty obsolete? Pshaw! Print technology didn’t do that and neither will the newer  technologies. Books made teachers more important (and vice versa), not less. Ditto the new modes and modalities.”

But that was not the take. The essay was equivocal, turning its criticism inward and outward, alternating between fear and hope. Jonathan Rees, a history professor who is no stranger to ed tech, writes,

Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession. Sometimes I think that enough support exists on enough campuses that the kind of teaching I do now will persist well past my retirement because students will still value the personal touch that proximity makes possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside of Frank Donoghue’s higher education classic, The Last Professors. Donoghue’s primary concern in that book was the corporate culture of the modern university. The jargon employed by U.Va. board members suggests how well the maturation of online education complements the destruction of traditions caused by that ideology in other aspects of campus life.

My last blog entry ought to make it clear that this is a perspective I can’t dismiss (or would even want to). It’s entirely understandable. These days, it’s almost impossbile to miss what this is a natural reaction to. In addition to all the hype and buzz about technological disruption, there’s a proliferation of critiques of higher ed, most of which not only hoist the “Change or Die” flag but invoke technology as some kind of silver bullet. Jeff Selingo’s “Fixing College” piece in the New York Times about a month ago is a perfect example. Selingo, Executive Director of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, wonders if higher ed will be technology’s next “take down”:

We now know how those industries have been transformed by technology, resulting in the decline of the middleman — newspapers, record stores, bookstores and publishers.

Colleges and universities could be next, unless they act to mitigate the poor choices and inaction from the lost decade by looking for ways to lower costs, embrace technology and improve education.

Though it’s hard not to feel the same breeze chilling Rees, it’s also hard not to think of all the mistaken predictions that are so much water under the bridge. (An excellent example was all the buzz about how TV would transform education.) Tellingly, Selingo focuses on changes in business models, not institutions. Anyone who’s been in the groves of academe for a decade or three learns to have a grudging respect for institutional inertia, especially when it comes to academic institutions.

Whether change will confirm the hopes (or the fears) of faculty like Rees is something only time will tell. There are plenty of visions of the future of technology and its impact on education — Tony Picciano called attention to one in his blog two days ago. But these visions are just that: visions. The future is not known, just the focus of speculation.  What we can know much more about is how — and how many — faculty feel positively or negatively about future of higher ed, particularly in terms of the impact of technological change. Some major surveys have been done recently, and the results are revealing.

But let’s save that for another blog entry. This one’s already too long.


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