Distance Learning and Academic Labor: Promise & Peril

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Common Dreams

Distance Learning and Academic Labor: Promise & Peril

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

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Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

Recently in The New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggested that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to again access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and gender studies with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, MA and blogs at Transition Times.

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