Arthur W. Hunt III on Internet Universities & Flesh-and-Blood Teachers
When Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun placed his graduate-level artificial intelligence course online last year—for free mind you—160,000 students enrolled. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are now being heralded as the harbinger of a new mode of higher education and the answer to rising tuition rates.
Online courses are by now a familiar feature in higher education; what's new is the hastening to make them a chief ingredient within the entire university recipe. Columnist David Brooks observed in a May 2012 New York Times op-ed that "elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures."
Even Christian colleges are adopting the online formula. Patrick Henry College allows students to complete up to half of their education online. Liberty University offers 11 associate's degrees, 33 bachelor's degrees, 70 master's degrees, and 10 doctoral degrees—all of which are online.
Pros & Cons
While online education is convenient for many students and cost-efficient for money-strapped schools, others are concerned about the overall quality of a degree earned solely through an electronic delivery system. Who of us, after all, would want to be operated on by a heart surgeon who earned his medical degree online?
Despite concerns about quality, educators are optimistic about the possibilities of online colleges. Thrun has even claimed that, in the future, there will only need to be ten universities in the world. Imagine having only the best professors on earth streaming their content to anyone who wants to tap in.
Such a situation would, of course, dramatically jeopardize the careers of professors. The tenured professor is already going the way of the dinosaur as universities hire more adjuncts at lower salaries.
Online higher education poses an even greater threat to teacher job security in a globalized economy. Princeton economics professor Alan S. Blinder caused no small stir in 2006 when he warned in Foreign Affairs that the new information-service economy could lead to the outsourcing of American white-collar jobs as easily as it did blue-collar jobs. His prediction echoes Thomas Friedman's gripping line in The World Is Flat: "If it can be digitized, it can be outsourced." Plumbers, electricians, and janitors probably have nothing to worry about, but accountants, computer programmers, and college professors certainly do.
Being There Is Best
Teachers have traditionally shared the physical environment with their students. But when educators are asked, as they increasingly will be, to spend hours in front of a computer screen rather than be with their students corporeally, they are being asked to do something that, until very recently, has not been understood as teaching. What online enthusiasts are really advocating is that we redefine what it means to be a teacher.
Arthur W. Hunt III is a former professor of public speaking at the University of Tennesse at Martin. He is now preparing to transition to ministry-related service and lives in the greater Memphis area.
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