Tuesday, February 19, 2013

IBHE & the Future of Education? "Academic Dystopia" (Please put me out of my misery now)

"Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat...college.”
--Woody Allen

This line from Woody Allen's film Annie Hall popped into my head during the long presentation from the IBHE on campus last Tuesday --powerpoint presentation with relentless statistics-- which was still going on when I left after an hour and a half. Was it ironic to anyone else that the speaker who was advocating for a turn to the online-model of education à la U of Phoenix "because students will just not sit through a professor lecturing at them" was doing essentially that? As if we needed more confirmation about the ill state of higher education in the state of ILL, Alan Philips, IBHE’s Deputy Director of Planning and Budgeting, delivered the bleakest message possible in his apocalyptic presentation on "The Future of Higher Education in Illinois and the U.S."

I was unable to stay to the end where I had hoped something positive might have been said and some debate on the questions take place. Perhaps others can comment and augment the discussion here. What struck me, however, was the academic dystopia that we, especially those of us in the liberal arts, are facing and how much it is already underway in some places around the country.

This talk started with a grim litany of statistics outlining the continued lack of funding in public higher education all over the U.S. (NOTE: faculty salaries and retirement highlighted as problems, but administrative bloat barely mentioned), and references to graduates of universities having to take jobs for which they are woefully overeducated and underpaid and in great debt from their college years. In the meantime, the Univ. of Phoenix and other for-profits of that ilk have swooped in to capitalize on the growing body of disenchanted “customers” (formerly known as students) who want education their way—think of the Burger King anthem as background music --on their terms: flexible, online or better yet ipad/iphone digestible, quick, and practical, and “good value for their money” which I guess means provides them with a high-paying job at the end. Unrelenting lists of statistics underscore the popularity of this type of learning and the institutions that provide it. The Univ. of Phoenix et al. will very likely replace many brick & mortar universities because UP respond to what the “customer” wants and because "the state" cannot afford to keep all the brick and mortar schools going. If you are lucky your university will become a "brick and click" university—offering both online and face-to-face education, but the right "branding" also needs to be in place.

Adding to the demise of university world as we have known it are employers who will begin demanding “certificates of competency” and portfolios of "skill sets" that will displace the caché that a mere diploma from University X used to give; Philips referred to this as “the disaggregation of the degree.” The success of online lectures sites like TED and COURSERA signal the popularity of the medium and the free online offerings by major universities in the U.S.A. and from around the world are transforming “customer choices.” It is not too far off before “customers” can cobble together a series of online classes here and there from specialists at this or that major university and call it a degree. The notion of an academic "department" then will likewise change. All you need is one or two faculty "rock stars" who set up an online course or two or three that are then managed or overseen by an assistant—maybe a  grad student (if such a thing can even exist in this scenario) more likely a glorified website manager. A “university” may then and ultimately will ask the question, “why, when an online course can attract hundreds or thousands of students at a time, would a department need to have more than 1 or 2 faculty?”

This was not the whole talk, nor did I get a chance to hear discussion afterward, so again, I welcome anyone else who was there to follow up or continue the description. It was, however, interesting to see some heads bobbing up and down in apparent agreement and a few others shaking back and forth in dismay. Before we drink all the koolade offered and march ourselves into the for-profit model and marketplace CSU needs desperately to continue this discussion. It is exactly this discussion that we never got to have during the time of that hijacked presidential search in 2008. That was a moment when Trustees, faculty, students, and administrators should have come together for honest conversation, but of course we were not allowed to do so.

So Philips' talk left me wanting to ask some questions as I’m sure it did for others.

One thing that strikes me in these types of presentations is that we have to stop conflating “education” with job-training. Do you want to be educated or do you want a job? They are not the same thing and this I think is the crux. What it means to be educated has changed over the centuries but in the western tradition of which we are a part the emphasis has been on skills of literacy and numeracy. In the modern era this has focused on thinking critically about ideas and the communication and debate of those ideas. CSU and other places can try to “brand” themselves all they want, but until they figure out what they mean by education we are going to limp along as we have been these past 3 years. Do we want to educate people or do we want to place them in jobs at graduation? And with cuts to higher education and the government on state and national levels opting out of support for what were once great institutions –California’s UC system, SUNY—my guess is that education will return to the 1920s model where only elite institutions will be places to attain an education and only the elites of society who can afford it will be able to be educated. The notion of mass education and opportunity for the rest of the population to be educated will be limited if it exists at all. For all but the elites the option will be job training.

 And we should not assume that all our students are the same. Some students want to be educated, by which I mean they want to learn a subject that they like, they want to learn how to think and express themselves and find a way to make life for themselves meaningful. These are the ones who have the potential to be lifelong learners. Of course other students want to get their “piece of paper,” take the path of least resistance where course work is concerned, settle for C’s, get out and start making money. I have been impressed, however, by the number of freshmen in the past two semesters of teaching 1099 freshmen seminar how many students are the former and not the latter.

I know I’ve mentioned this before but CSU does not realize what its real brand could be—an opportunity for a liberal arts style education within a state university system. This is our strength—small classrooms, individual attention, personal attention—rather than some version of the DeVry Institute, let alone an outpost of the University of Phoenix or as I’ve remarked here in the past, Chicago State City College. This isn’t even my articulation of this idea, it came from a colleague of mine in the sciences, not from a humanities professor.

 It struck me at one point in Philips' talk how in the 1960s and 70s no one thought it was a skewed world when people who had very little formal education (a little high school in some cases, even less possibly) could make “good money” at industrial jobs--$50-70,000 after years in a Steel Plant that included weeks and weeks of paid vacation, plus company scholarship opportunities for sons and daughters capping it all off with a secure retirement. Why? Unions and a very different economy. So now we have a situation where “overeducated” people are in low-paying jobs. Is this situation the fault of universities? Are we blaming the way universities educate people for something that is circumstantial and beyond the university’s control? There are fewer union jobs and very little security in any jobs these days—in other words a very different economy.

Another question for Philips. Regarding employers and their desire for “skill sets” not diplomas. Why listen so uncritically to what employers want? Ultimately they want to pay as little as possible for labor. They want the best on the market and to pay the least amount of money as possible in true corporate/capitalist model. Employers who want skill sets also want to control knowledge. This is a slippery slope—letting companies tell us what to teach or what goes into a curriculum, or offering us their version of an online course for us to implement is to create Hamburger University. Doesn’t McDonald’s already do that? The reason: they can inculcate their corporate culture into their workers and create people who are not critical thinkers but who know how to follow along unquestioningly.

Philips noted that he has received some pushback from certain academics and administrators about his enthusiasm for online education. Someone he had spoken to thought the online education stuff was another example of a passing fancy, a flash in the pan. Phillips sincerely believes it is not. So, one question I wanted to ask him was how the U of Phoenix phenomenon is different from the 1970s-era failed “telecommunication” courses? I remember my mother taking “classes” on public television in our living room and sending her homework to the professor by mail to be graded –this in the late 1960s. She never got a degree that way and I don’t know when or how the program ended. One of the campuses of the University of Toronto, Scarborough College, was built in the 1970s or just a bit earlier to be its telecourse outpost. It stood as an example of that failed experiment of filmed lectures and limited faculty-student interaction. When I was teaching there in the 1990s and it had been converted to a “traditional” brick and mortar university.

 The question “what is a university?” is a good one to raise. It’s not the first time it’s been asked, but CSU and other universities in the state of ILL need to have a much wider discussion of it before we sip too deeply of this proffered cup.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Joseph Stiglitz wrote an excellent piece about online education:


    1. Another NYTimes letter that might be pertinent to this discussion is from Drew Faust, the President of Harvard: "Don't Judge a College Value by Graduates' Paycheck"

  3. Kelly,
    Thanks for that link. The article and the comments attached to it are really worth reading. A couple of them here:
    "...My experience as an online adjunct in local community colleges, after several years teaching the same course "on-ground," bears this out. Students were frequently ill-prepared, from inadequate computer resources to lack of online skills to simple inability to read and write at a first-year college level. And they often disregarded guidance at the start of the semester that as a "real" credit course, they'd be expected to put in the 12 to 24 hours per week typical of a 4-credit lab science class. Many had no idea they'd have to give up anything in their busy lives, including vacations and family time, to succeed. As a result, typically half to three-quarters dropped the course or simply quit coming by the end of the semester."

    And on a more positive note:
    "It can be done by superior, students with supportive family. I am impressed with how excellent on-line education can be when it is done properly and the professors and students are tech advanced enough to make it work. On-line education is still in its infancy in many respects, but when combined with on-campus seminars and apprenticeships, I believe it could be the best way to nationally upgrade post high school education and produce a high caliber workforce."