Monday, October 19, 2009

On Distance Learning

University of San Francisco, my alma mater

To me, getting a college degree via “distance learning” is like having a cab driver deliver your babies: You do it out of necessity not because it’s the best choice. 

Colleges and universities have always been arbiters of wealth and advancement in American society with elite private universities with huge endowments able to skim off the best students while state universities duck the endless cuts to their budgets by a state government and a citizenry who don’t value intellectual achievement. Community colleges are the unsung heroes of the system, providing remedial help to those whose secondary educations have fallen short and a foot in the door for the ambitious poor who cannot afford the tuition at the barely-subsidized state universities.

In fact, the funding from states to their universities has become so slim as to be barely significant. I teach at the University of Rhode Island, where only 11% of the university's budget is provided by the state of Rhode Island. Offering so little to the state’s flagship university, it is unmitigated chutzpah for the governor to cut the budget of the university, forcing students into paying more tuition. How far must the state’s share drop before we officially stop being called a state university? It seems to me that URI creates far more income for the university than it requires for its functioning. 

Lately, spam offering sexual enhancement pills and devices seem to have been surpassed by advertisements for quick on-line professional and PhD degrees. I don’t know how many of these are charlatans looking to make a killing but the gradual acceptance of distance learning as part of a regular college curriculum concerns me greatly because it creates an educational market where legitimate universities and the credentialed professoriate are mixed in with those who lack the proper qualifications for university instruction. 

The opportunity to listen to a professor’s lectures, to the comments and questions by their classmates, and to view the films that are shown are invaluable in gaining an understanding of a subject. I cannot judge chemistry or art history classes, but in my field, Latin American history, it is hard enough to understand the textbooks with  2- or 3-times-per-week contact; trying to do it on one’s own is forbidding, particularly for beginning students. 

There are advantages to the DL system: Students have direct time with the professor on-line but this does not make up for the fullness of the experience in the classroom. In terms of the professor’s time, only a small number of students can be enrolled in the class if anything besides Scantron tests (electronically graded, objective exams) are employed. I believe that part of mission of a liberal arts education is to produce literate citizens: Students need to write, and not just for English classes. 

I attended the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit university; except for classes that fulfilled requirements for all students such as “Introduction to Western Philosophy” or “Physics for Non-Science Majors,” which were quite large, classes in my major typically had no more than 10-15 students. It might have been different for those departments with a large number of majors like English or history, but philosophy had only 38 majors. Naturally, this meant that even though I was a working-class student whose classmates were predominantly middle-class, I had the privilege of a lot of face-time with my professors, particularly since they were almost always in their offices when not in the classroom, and always welcomed our visits. My experience was closer to the Oxford or Cambridge model of tutors and small seminars than to any of my experiences as a professor. 

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy; I took very few tests besides essay exams, and very few of those, at that. Mostly, I wrote papers: Short papers, long papers, research papers, and opinion papers, all of which received careful attention from my professors. However, it was a very different situation from the one encountered by my students today.  

I teach in a state university. My classes usually have between 30 and 40 students; small by the standards of the University of California at Los Angeles where I did my graduate work (400-student lectures) but bigger and less personal than my undergraduate experience. On-line courses are restricted to 20 students each but the degree mills out there are unregulated; they could have 20 or 80 students or more; who’s to know?

When I was in the eighth grade and decided, on my own, to attend an academic high school, I did it with no guidance from my eighth grade teacher who celebrated my Italian- and Irish-American classmates but spent virtually no time with me, despite the fact that I had the highest grades in the class. (I earned more degrees than any of them.) You’ll do all right, she told me, and I had to figure everything out for myself. As a working-class high school student, I had little guidance when I picked a university. As good as my high school was, they did not provide counseling in choosing a college; or maybe they did but not to me; it has often been the case that I was ignored—like many Latino, working-class students--by guidance counselors. In college, when I asked for advice about graduate school, my otherwise attentive Jesuit professors didn’t take me seriously. I was a good student but the idea that I--a working-class Latina--aspired to study for a doctorate in medieval philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto or at Yale University was downright comic to them. With a little help, I would have arrived at my goals much earlier. That’s the thing about not being a part of the upper-classes, or even the middle-class; nobody believes that you can succeed because you don’t have the right background with all the shadings that that implies. 

Yet despite my economic challenges, I managed to achieve my goals; it just took me a little longer. I figure that I am ten years behind my colleagues of the same age because I had to figure out my own route and draw my own road map. Given today’s economic situation where so many of us have lost a significant portion of our pensions, I’ll have to work longer anyway. Maybe I’ll catch up by the time I retire.  

When I started college, I was armed with only an electric typewriter; I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to have had the resources, a personal computer and the Internet. The UC Berkeley Extension offered “correspondence courses,” but they were even more attenuated from the classroom than today’s distance learning classes since they relied on the U.S. postal service to transmit the student-teacher correspondence. 

What will happen to today’s working-class students? Some, like me will stumble along and with luck, find themselves in one of the outstanding graduate programs (like my other alma mater, UCLA), earn a degree and find a great job. What I fear is that instead of offering wonderful opportunities, the proprietary on-line learning programs will bestow second-class degrees on them, burden them with staggering debt, but offer them little chance to really “make it.” They will be proud when they earn their degrees but the market will chew them up and spit them out, giving the good jobs to those who attended "real universities."                                (1225)

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