Meanwhile, On Our Other Flank…

Lots of online commentary and reposting of OpEd (“The Trouble with Online Education“) by M Edmundson of UVA in last week’s New York Times.  For an interesting response see N Jurgenson on the Cyborgology blog.
Personally, I’m pretty sure that we (non-elite liberal arts colleges) ARE sunk. Not so much BY online education as by our response to it. As far as I can tell, almost all the reaction from liberal arts quarters is just that: reaction.  And mostly reactionary (that’s how I’d characterize Edmundson’s piece, even if I agree with him that a great face-to-face class can be a great thing – all one can say is “of course it is”).  Our usual approach, trying to preach the demons away, does not have a good track record.
But the big mistake made by little institutions that DO take a look is to think that the way to go is to “get into” offering online courses.  Terrible idea, in part due to the simple problem of scale.  I pray that we at my own institution don’t even waste time on it. If we venture down the fool’s path of looking for (yet) another cash cow, we’ll be a footnote in the history books in no time at all.
Which is not to say online instruction and instructional resources are a bad thing.  Au contraire!  What we should be thinking about is how we can use these tools to increase productivity and effectiveness and repertoire (and thereby lower the cost of we do well so that we can attract more enrollment).  Courseraand EdX (and P2PUet al.) are amazing ventures generating all manner of raw material for the bricolage of creative minds; liberal arts colleges should be thinking like innovators – learning all about them with an eye to how to use them to our benefit – not like a ostriches, fundamentalists, Alamoistas or Masadaists.
Alas, every indication I’ve seen over the last few years in our approaches to budgets, revenue, innovation, technology, and enrollment is very discouraging in this regard.  Circumstances force something like 90% of our attention to be on today and we tend to squander the last 10%  on yesterday; tomorrow is our neglected child.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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