The Future of Online Education (Part I): The Machine Never Stops

RussellBy Rich Russell

My mom said to me recently, “In twenty-five years, none of this [waving arms about to indicate college building] will exist.” We were sitting in her office at the place where she has taught for twenty-five years now; where I have taught, as an adjunct, for four. She paused to look out the window at a lone student smoking, another relic of a former time. “In twenty-five years, all of this will be online. Administrators will realize (if they haven’t already) that it’s much cheaper to have everything online rather than to have to pay to heat and maintain buildings; much easier than having to provide classroom space. I’m sure some private universities will still exist (in the future): the Harvards and the Yales, for research and for the children of the super-rich. But for the rest of us…” — gesturing then towards her computer. “I’m glad I won’t still be teaching in twenty-five years to see that…” And then my mom smiled at me and asked, “Wanna go to lunch?”

When I later told an administrator at another school of my mom’s bleak prognostication — in a tone of I mean, it’s crazy, right? — he just sighed, “Your mom may be right” — as if plans were already in the works, the banners being delivered this afternoon, proclaiming, “Ok, Computers!” Or maybe these acclamations already festoon the hallways of our campuses.

In his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), E.M. Forster writes of a world in which all human interaction is mediated through the Machine: everyone lives life in a solitary cell, from which one interacts with the rest of the world, with people contained to parallel rooms where all of their needs are similarly met. As Forster notes, this new civilization was in the business of bringing things to people rather than people to things: it was much more efficient this way. Rather than go the mall, order something online and have it delivered. Rather than hang out with friends, chat with them on Facebook. Rather than drive to class, log on to your course from home in your pajamas. It sounds convenient and, for the most part, inexpensive.

The inciting moment of Forster’s story is when Kuno asks his mother to come visit him, in person. “I want to see you not through the Machine,” says Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

His mother responds: “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.” And so, for the most part, we haven’t.

Now, as we enter these dyspeptic winter months, and I remind my traditional students to sign up for “text alerts” in order to be immediately notified of school cancellations, my online students know that the machine never stops: online classes prevail no matter what the weather. As the snow begins to fall and I look up from my computer at home, I shake my fist and scorn, “Do your worst, Mother Nature! You shall not deter us from our stated [online] course!” This, too, makes my life more convenient/efficient if a bit less exciting; after all, as a teacher I still long for at least one or two snow days myself. But just as the snow begins to fall, the green “snowflake” notification lights up in Blackboard indicating new mail. “Back to work,” the Machine demands. So I close the window blinds, shutting out the distracting scene…

(In Forster’s future, people grow intolerant of looking outside. Everything important is contained on a screen, they believe. They come to believe in the Machine above anything else…)

When I returned to a real-life classroom last week for my first face-to-face class this semester, my mom’s words still echoing in my ears (the ones about all colleges will be online), I imagined all of the desks and chairs replaced by aisles and aisles of cold, clean, uniform computer servers, blinking and clicking away in the darkness. Perhaps this seems an inevitable if somewhat unenviable future for us… (Lunch, anyone?)

Next time: “The Future of Online Education (Part II): Life Inside the Machine”

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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