“Inside the Machine,” in Forster’s short story, Kuno’s mother Vashti is a lecturer on music history. Here, where every individual is confined to a separate room — where all needs are met by the Machine — Forster writes, “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her arm-chair she spoke, while they in their arm chairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.” Although each individual is “connecting” to Vashti’s lecture individually, this is done in a synchronous order: everyone logging on at the same time to hear her. Forster makes no mention of discussions occurring between lecturer and student (let alone student to student). Like a TED talk, students log on, they listen, they absorb, and then they are dispersed. Like an online model of free (or alternative) schooling, students move from lecture to lecture, learning what they like and avoiding anything that might not interest them: remembering, understanding, but often little else. The disadvantage, then, is that these objectives fall very low on Bloom’s revered taxonomy that we as teachers have been encouraged to follow. (And just to be clear, I quite enjoy a good TED talk myself from time to time.)
Even though most online education is not synchronous these days, I feel that discussion is essential to every online class, regardless of discipline: not only so that I know students are achieving those higher level thinking skills, but also so that I see them forming connections with each other. That social component — feeling like you are part of something larger than yourself, an online community of learners — I have found to be essential for the retention of students; for myself included. (For I have been a student in online classes where there was no interaction whatsoever with other students, and I have lost interest and stopped logging in.)
But it is not convenient, maybe, this creation of an online community. In order to have a class of twenty or so students, all participating in a shared experience, a common goal, you have to maintain the semester system: specified start times in the year when everyone will commence learning. As we see with for-profit colleges, why only have two semesters and a few summer sessions when you can start online, open-entry courses every few weeks — or even every day? This approach augurs the “death of the semester” as reported in The Chronicle this past October: “self-paced” courses where students submit work to the professor but are never required to discuss the information with a student cohort, because that cohort does not exist. For these courses, if students are assessed solely by self-grading, objective quizzes and tests that can be scheduled by the Machine to open and close based on the student’s progress, the teacher merely exists as an IT assistant; and we have IT assistants to be IT assistants; thus, in such classes, the professor would become entirely redundant. This is distance education as a T.V. Guide correspondence course. This is the “fast foodization of higher education” that Dr. Nicholas Burbules (Prof. Of Education, University of Illinois) refers to in the Frontline documentary College, Inc. (May 4, 2010; if you haven’t seen this program, take an hour to watch it; it’s available, of course, online).
Vashti one day receives a message from her son: “The Machine stops,” he says. In the case of the for-profit (largely online) colleges profiled in the Frontline piece, it looks like greater federal regulation might be coming. At the same time, the president calls for more students to graduate from college — and, as the program notes — community colleges (the better alternative to the for-profits) are stretched to their limits. The community college where I teach has not had to shut its doors and turn away students — yet. But if it does, where will the students who can’t be taken in go?
They will go to the Machine. They will have no choice.
Next time: “The Future of Online Education (Part III): Life Outside 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.