Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

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Image: Crookes tube apparatus, from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and its value in Surgery (American Technical Book Co., New York, 1896)

In the past, I’ve been more than a little critical of online education. After all, when faculty teach online, they are no longer just competing against people in their discipline for jobs. They are competing against every single Ph.D. with an Internet connection. Moreover, put your course online and suddenly it becomes possible to record every communication that you have with your students, to scale the size of your class to some gargantuan number, or to unbundle you — meaning break the task of teaching up into small parts and farm those duties out to less-skilled people.

“I think all faculty who quietly sulk down the road toward their own technological obsolescence deserve their fate,” I wrote in 2013. I still believe that, but since then the ground has shifted below the feet of faculty everywhere. In her book Teaching Online, Claire Howell Major cites 2013 figures that suggest the extent of the change already — 7.1 million American college students took online courses that year, or 33.5 percent of total enrollment in higher education. Those numbers have no doubt grown since then and will only get larger over time.

Before considering the ramifications of that change, it is worth considering exactly why it happened. Was there something wrong with the traditional education that American universities once provided?

No. Otherwise online education would have taken off back when it first became a thing during the late-1990s. What changed was the environment in which colleges and universities, and their students, operate. Systematically starved of resources, colleges have turned to online education as a way to bring in revenue. That’s why taking an online course is often more expensive than taking a conventional course. Colleges and universities think that online courses are the magic balm that can fix everything that ails them, even if the quality of some of those courses isn’t necessarily up to the standards of their other offerings.

In fact, serious doubts exist about the quality of online courses. A 2013 survey of employers found that 56 percent of them prefer applicants with traditional degrees from average institutions rather than online degrees from more prestigious ones. Of course, that perception is unfair; there are plenty of dedicated professors whose online courses are better educational experiences for students than the face-to-face classes of poor instructors. There are also plenty of under-qualified, badly trained instructors producing cookie-cutter online courses that students will gladly take over a better, on-campus alternative, purely for the sake of convenience.

Unfortunately, complaining about the quality of online courses or citing reasons why they have exploded in recent years will do nothing to change the fact that online education is growing and that its overall quality could certainly stand improvement. It doesn’t matter whether conventional education is being disrupted or systematically starved, the eventual result will be the same: Professors at campuses where students are strapped for money, time, or both will find their face-to-face classes increasingly underpopulated. Some departments will keep on doing what they’ve always done and survive, but others will shrink or disappear altogether as their administrators shift university funds to those online programs that bring in revenue. Old style faculty will become dinosaurs whether they deserve to be or not.

That’s why I recently made a commitment to start teaching online, beginning in the fall of 2016. My plan is to create a rigorous and engaging online U.S. history survey course while I’m still in a position to dictate terms. After all, if I create a respectable, popular class that takes advantage of the Internet to do things that can’t be done in person, then it will be harder for future online courses at my university (or elsewhere for that matter) to fail to live up to that example. In short, I want to stake out the high ground in the online education space before that ground becomes completely inaccessible.

The only way for this to happen is for caring tenured faculty to start teaching online themselves. Indeed, the more you hate the idea of teaching online, the more that online education needs you. After all, who else could do a better job of calling out any efforts to weaken standards in online courses than someone who has provided a quality face-to-face education for years and is (thanks to what’s left of tenure) at least somewhat resistant to pressure from above?

There’s a show on CNN I like called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” that consists of host Mike Rowe interviewing Americans with interesting, often unappreciated jobs. In most segments, we see that person do his or her job. Then Rowe tries it and fails (often spectacularly). I’ve never seen a college professor on the show, and I certainly don’t expect to see one soon — let alone an online instructor. While I can easily imagine Rowe struggling desperately to operate a learning management system, that would not exactly make for compelling television.

But I think the name of his show still applies. Somebody’s gotta teach online — whether we like it or not. Face-to-face faculty collectively sticking their respective fingers in their respective ears isn’t going to make this development go away since (unlike MOOCs) online education has already demonstrated considerable staying power. If more caring tenured professors don’t jump on this train soon, we’ll lose whatever chance we may have to determine its ultimate destination.

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