Online courses required trade-off
VOICE OF REASON
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 22:09
I am an anti-Luddite.
For those of you who don’t recall your 19th-century English history, the Luddites were a group of English textile artisans who opposed the development of the mechanized loom.
This new technology meant that skilled textile producers could be replaced by less-skilled, low-wage workers, leaving the artisans out of work.
In modern times, the term neo-Luddite has come to refer to one who opposes the kinds of innovative and disruptive technological change that often render old economic and social arrangements obsolete. Think of the people who hate on self-checkout lines in grocery stores or complain about computers doing jobs people used to do.
One of the latest outbursts of neo-Luddism has come from Pamela Hieronymi in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In an article entitled “Don’t Confuse Technology with College Teaching,” Hieronymi, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, attempts to dampen some of the enthusiasm that has surrounded the growth of online education programs at institutions as respected as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At the core of her argument is a point made by nearly all neo-Luddites. Hieronymi writes, “We will not make [the task of training minds] significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality… [W]e will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.”
In other words, nothing can replicate the experience of actually learning in a classroom and engaging in face-to-face interaction with a teacher.
Online learning may be cheap, less time-intensive and easy to access, but it comes at the precious price of quality.
I honestly don’t have a bone to pick with this argument. In fact, I more or less agree with it.
Here’s the problem.
You know what else can’t be replicated? The quality and durability of hand-woven fabric.
If you’ve ever seen clothing that was really made by hand,
you know what I’m talking about.
The mechanized loom, and subsequent technological innovations in the textile industry have given us textiles and clothing of somewhat lower quality than the handmade products of centuries ago.
But how many of us wear handmade clothing?
The reason the Luddites lost their battle is because textiles made by mechanical looms was cheaper, less labor-intensive and easier to come by.
Just like online education.
Life is full of trade-offs. We just can’t have clothing that is hand-made in quality but as cheap and widely available as clothing made by machine.
Likewise, we can’t necessarily have a higher education system that can provide the full “college experience,” face-to-face education and also expect costs to be low and accessibility to be high.
The higher education sector is ripe for the kind of transformation that revolutionized the textile industry years ago. All of us here at Brandeis are intimately familiar with yearly tuition hikes that are far outpacing inflation and wage growth.
No longer does it seem so obvious that four years of face-to-face classroom time in a picturesque
New England university will yield the economic return it once did.
Online education offers a cheap and accessible way to earn marketable skills without breaking the bank.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Andrew Kelly has even suggested that free online courses offered by elite institutions could enhance the marketability of many aspiring job-applicants.
If the market pressures make traditional college educations far too expensive for most people, then employers may begin to consider “credits” earned online in their hiring decisions.
Perhaps this kind of market transformation could even begin to put downward pressure on the costs at traditional, four-year residential colleges.
The kind of online revolution Hieronymi laments could ultimately make more traditional, in-person instruction more accessible to more students.
Market innovations, especially the most economically and socially disruptive ones, always spark opposition and make entrenched interests nervous,
Those who oppose such innovations have legitimate worries. But markets are complicated and ever changing. It is possible to avoid trade-offs and sub-par choices.
But hard choices can prove to be incredible opportunities.
Trade-offs in the short-term may yield more choices in the long-term.
Those are the facts Hieronymi fails to understand, but that we must.