Old Media & New Media (Higher Ed & Big Technology)

At some point students and their parents will have to realize that they are getting ripped off. And it’s not by us, the hapless professoriate. Take for instance the recent article in the NYT about virtual models of higher education. The article on its own contains nothing new, but it is interesting to see how it looks when the parts of an argument for it are laid out in simple English on for a larger public forum.

You would think that it’s a good thing, and maybe it is in part, that academic lectures will get uploaded online. It’s not, in itself, very different than books on tape. Many of the lectures available are via iTunes, etc. For those of us interested in oral culture, this should be very, very interesting, as it frequently combines orality with a visual component in new-media environments (usually a dull visual component, but nevertheless a visual one).

What worries about this phenomenon is the way in which the interest in transfering higher education onto new media platforms so obviously dovetails with the drive to cut costs in an era of decreasing public (state and federal) support of higher education. The obvious worry is how privatization, corporatization, and technological innovation will continue to degrade the teaching profession and the university system, just as it has elsewhere in the public sphere. Beyond the glitz and glitter are all the shut down systems, and the desperate attempts by public interests to scramble for budgetary resources. If you didn’t already know it, that is the context with which to read the attempted firing of President Teresa Sullivan at UVa. Why should the states pay for more human capital when you can scrape by sort of with less?

It’s my belief, and I might be wrong, that we will rue the day when physical place (university lecture halls and seminar rooms) are no longer recognized as the essential, first platform upon we work as educators. While the model of virtual education might promise to democratize access to the best and brightest academic talent, what I fear it will yield is the complete de-personalization of education. With no back and forth, I worry that the order of the day will be increased standardization and modularity of the academic “product,” the utter passivity and distraction of the student body, and the radical monetization of the entire higher education system and the practice-tradition of academic inquiry.

What caught my eye in the NYT is the following bit cited from the website of the “Flipped Learning Network.” This is the company which has been trying to pitch the introduction of video into grade school, high school, and academic life. This little clip pretty much sums things up. Following this model, “students watch classes via video — the argument is that teachers do not need to be present in person when a group listens to a lecture passively — thereby saving physical classroom time for individual tutoring or small groups.”

This is what the cascading component parts look like when you isolate each one and list them each after the other.

students watch classes

via video

teachers do not need to be present in person

when a group listens to a lecture passively

thereby saving physical classroom time

And this is supposed to be a sales pitch. What it offers as an educational platform is absent teachers, no physical or one-on-one face-time, and passive students. I don’t think the sharpest critics could have expressed themselves better.

I suppose this means that instead of reading for class, a student can watch a video, and, if they even bother showing up for class let a low-level, nontenure-tracked instructor clean up the mess.

I’ll confess to my own complete lack of experience with online education. As I understand it, the main incentive for colleagues at SU is monetary. The whole thing has never appealed to me. It sounds like a lot of extra work setting up the technical apparatus. But most of all, I don’t really lecture in class. Sometimes I do when I have to, but I have always found it better, most of the time, to mix things up, i.e. my own oral presentation with questions and comments from students. Eye contact has always seemed to me to be a sine qua non of the teaching experience. And I like to move around, not stick myself behind a podium and talk, talk, talk. My own best practice tends to focus more on conversation and guided-interactive close readings of complex primary source material.

Given my own limited experience, I found these items very helpful:

http://chronicle.com/article/Online-Programs-Face-New/129608/

http://www.ilamont.com/2010/12/open-learning-initiative-at-harvard.html

Or even better, go check it out for yourself: http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses. For my colleagues in Jewish Studies, take a look at Shaye Cohen’s lectures. They are truly endearing. And also Christine Hayes. But, shouldn’t I spend my time reading their books and have my students do so as well? And then we can talk.

Above all, what strikes me is the conceptual flaw. I have no problem with new media. But the classroom is an old media, and I don’t think you can “flip it.” The proponents of e-learning are trying to separate out “content” and “form.” The idea is that any server can serve content, and that content is always self-identical. I think they think you can scale up “the product” or you can scale it down, and scaling up is always more efficient. But there is every reason to believe three things in contrast to these governing assumptions. One is that you can’t scale up an old media format like an academic lecture or seminar without losing something in the process. Secondly, content and form are fundamentally inseparable. Thirdly, what we teach, at least in the humanities and humanistic social studies, is not even “content.” And that’s precisely why all these administrators and managing interests are all out to get us.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Old Media & New Media (Higher Ed & Big Technology)

  1. That it “is not even content’ may well be why they “are all out to get us”, and it may also be why the attempt to do so will ultimately fail. As a parallel, e-learning in organizations continues to be popular and sold to companies on the supposed low cost feature, only for companies to find that 1) it is not low cost, development and admin is expensive and when ‘content’ changes it has to be updated, 2) it doesn’t work, or is at least very limited, anything social or behavioural is more effectively learned in a classroom and 3) learners hate it, even those who are highly adapted to technology, and do everything they can to get out of doing it. And the reason I believe is precisely that the form cannot deal with the ‘content’. I like Slavoj Zizek’s term “inter-passivity” in relation to this issue.

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