By Diane Auer Jones
Dear Mr. President
You’re right. The world has changed. Whereas once upon a time going to college meant packing up the family station wagon with your turntable and milk crates full of records, now it means tucking your kids into bed and turning on the computer so that you can join classmates from around the world in an online discussion. Whereas once only the wealthy and elite had a choice when it came to college, and everyone else had to go to the community college or public university down the street, now everyone has a chance to find the institution that best serves their needs, learning style and life goals.
You see, it isn’t just rich students that sometimes want to benefit from small class sizes and direct interaction with a professor and not some 21 year old TA who just finished college last year. Sometimes poor students also want the opportunity to be more than a social security number. Sometimes they want to learn from someone who actually works in the field for which they are training. Sometimes students who don’t have a car and can’t afford to leave home want the same chance to earn a degree as the kid who gets to live in one of those fancy dorms with private bathrooms and climbing walls in the basement … or drive mom’s car to and from campus every day. Sometimes students want to be able to put food on the table, earn a credential, and be there to read stories and tuck their kids into bed at night. Poor students have the same dreams for their own kids as their wealthier peers, and, like you, they know that being there, in the home, even if tucked away in a quiet corner working on their computer, is better for their kids than leaving them unattended to run off to night college.
As you said tonight, the rules have changed and technology has led the way. You said that technology has changed the way we live, work, and do business. Why, then, is your Department of Education doing everything in its power to make sure that technology can’t change the way we learn? It would seem to me that if, as you put it, anyone with a computer can open a business, hire staff, and sell a product, then we ought to be focused on getting more of our students comfortable working and learning in the online environment. Online technology gives students the unique opportunity to continue the conversation beyond the 50-minute class, to allow students to work in groups regardless of conflicting work or lacrosse practice schedules, and to let a student in New York work on a project with a peer in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan. Online instruction allows students to get help when they just can’t figure out that one last problem, or when they are studying for an exam and still don’t understand some important but complex concept. In the online environment, the student can go back and watch the lecture again, read through the chat again, participate in a study group while on a dinner break at work or reach out to a classmate or instructor for additional help.
Online learning does require discipline and commitment on the part of the student, but that is what education is supposed to be about. Online learning is NOT what federal employees do when they take those mind-numbing HR training sessions required by OPM. It amazes me how so many people who have never taken an online class or even entered an electronic classroom seem so willing to pass judgement on a form of learning that they never have experienced. If they didn’t learn that way, it must not be good.
Yes, Mr. President, the rules have changed. The world has changed. Students have changed. Institutions have changed. So maybe it’s time for you to send your own staff at the Department of Education an e-mail and let them know that it is time for them to change, too. We do our banking, read our newspapers, and even communicate with our doctors online. Heck, some people even find their spouses on line. But your Department of Education clearly doesn’t want students to learn online, or so it would seem given the number of hurdles and added costs they have thrust upon online programs—and not just the ones offered by unsubsidized institutions.
The new regulations that your education officials have imposed suggest that online instruction isn’t as good as the old fashioned way of learning … you know, the sleep-in-the-back-of-the-room or catch-up-on-your-e-mail or text-all-of-your-friends-about-Saturday-night-while-the-teacher-yaks-at-the-front-of-the-room kinds of classes. For example, when a student is enrolled in a classroom-based class, the Department of Education considers him to be engaged in an academically related activity by virtue of the act of walking into class. It doesn’t matter if he sleeps through the entire class. I guess learning will just happen by osmosis. However, starting on July 1st of this year, when a student is enrolled in an online course, and she performs the equivalent of walking into class by logging into the electronic classroom portal, the Department of Education will not consider this to be an academically related activity. Well, is entering the classroom an academically related activity or isn’t it? Meanwhile, a faculty member is far more likely to know the level of engagement of an online student versus a classroom-based student because in the online environment, the professor can monitor all of the activities in which a student has been engaged—all day—and not just those that took place during a regularly scheduled 50-minute period.
It isn’t that we think online chats, group projects, student-led presentations, and e-mail exchanges between student and faculty are unimportant. Online faculty evaluate all of these things in assessing student learning and achievement. The problem is that now the Department of Education is requiring not only that faculty evaluate this work (as do we), but also that institutions save it in electronic archives so that Department of Education officials can look at it, upon request, at a later date. Now bureaucrats who have never taught a class in their life and are unqualified to do so will be making value judgements about what constitutes an academically related activity and what does not. That, Mr. President, is the camel’s nose peeking under the sanctity-of-the-classroom tent.
It will not be long before students in brick-and-mortar classrooms will be required to have clickers in their hands so that they can press the button every 15 minutes to prove they are awake and in the room, and so that a computer can record each time they raise their electronic hand to ask or answer a question. Faculty members will need to preserve thousands of e-mails to show that they interacted with a student, even if he or she missed class on a given day. I guess faculty will be required to keep electronic logs of who visited during office hours, too. All of this so that a student can have the privilege of borrowing money from a taxpayer at interest rates of up to almost 9 percent. (For those who will undoubtedly write comments about loan defaults, I encourage you to do some research first because even when a student defaults—which means he is 90 days late in making a payment—he does repay the loan or the government collects its money by garnishing tax refunds and social security payments).
You are absolutely correct, Mr. President, that the world has changed. So maybe it is time for your Department of Education to realize that the students of tomorrow will not be educated with chalkboards and overheads, no matter how much those of us who are over 40 wish to relish the glory days of our own college past. I challenge anyone who questions the quality of online education to sign up for an online course to see first hand just what it is like. Go ahead. Do it. Come back and tell us how it was. But for those who have never experienced online learning or teaching first hand, perhaps it is time to stop parroting hearsay and start making some evidence-based observations of their own.
Thank you, Mr. President, for recognizing that technology has changed our world. It is now time to allow technology to change higher education.