Online Ed's Niche Role

David Clemens

From my `84 PCjr to my 3G iPad, I have embraced technology.  I’ve taken 10 courses online, earned UCLA’s Certificate in Distance Learning, studied distance learning for a sabbatical leave project (1997), taught online for the last decade, and created an online Great Books program.

Given my experience, you’d think I would urge colleges to embrace online classes.  But my endorsement is limited and conditional, and rooted more in resignation than enthusiasm.  Online classes are a compromise, and all educational modalities have both benefits and liabilities.  My position is only that some online classes have some benefits in some circumstances for some students in some disciplines.

I’ve been corresponding with Jason Fertig, whose essay on online education appears concurrently with this one. In an email he wondered whether online courses are really higher education or just credentialing. This raises an uncomfortable question: today, how much bricks-and-mortar higher education is really higher education?  The recent decision by SUNY Albany to drop the French, Italian, Russian, and Classics departments was not an educational decision but a budgetary one.  One new book Higher Education?, seems titled with a helpless shrug. Another describes higher education as The Five Year Party.

I recall a college administrator who while cutting literature classes spoke passionately about more “student access to higher education.”  I said, “Access doesn’t do them any good if there’s no higher education when they get here.  What you are cutting is higher education.”

Between dumbing down and advocacy teaching, peer editing and “student-centered” classrooms, Theory and CorporateU., PowerPoint presentations and courses on Buffy— higher education in the traditional sense has been smothered.  By “traditional sense” I mean Anthony Kronman’s for an answer to the question of how I should spend my life, of what commitments and pursuits will give it meaning and value...what matters most is not that the right answer be found, by someone or other, but that it be me who finds it.”

By “traditional sense” I also mean Emerson’s metaphor:  “The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes of all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.”

Instead of seriously examining such eternal questions of the meaning of life, the liberal arts and humanities wither away in favor of pragmatic but less formative pursuits.  What do these words have in common:  American, leisure, postcolonial, liberal, gender, disability, queer, environmental, animal?  Answer: followed by the word, “studies,” all are degree-granting college majors.

Who experienced higher education, Cortney Munna, who ran up $100,000 in debt earning a degree in Women’s and Religious Studies but works as a “photographer’s assistant,” or my autodidact mailman who never attended college but lately has been reading Eco, Celine, and Melville?  Had Cortney read The Odyssey she might have recognized her university experience as Calypso’s Isle where students live for years under an enchantment.

The Big Question is whether the imperatives of current educational models make widespread embrace of online classes inevitable.  It may be a situation of hug or die.  The only reason my college has literature courses at all is because we moved them online.  Otherwise, they were not offered or were cancelled as unprofitable and eliminated from the catalogue.  Now, under the fragile umbrella of “The Great Books Online Certificate Program,” we nurse them along despite the huge drop rate for online courses and the loss of "voices around the table."   Presenting a paper last year, I was asked, “Doesn’t mediated online teaching diminish the benefits of shared inquiry?”  I replied that shared inquiry is a nicety; “my hope is to expose students to classic texts about perennial questions at all.”

In 1997, when I began designing online courses, I had to address certain grim realities.  I can’t speak for other disciplines but in what’s left of the liberal arts, online at least provides an opportunity for orphaned humanists to converse even if geographically dispersed.  My last Intro to Great Books course had students from Ohio, Illinois, and both ends of California; all wanted to read about great books but couldn’t find a home.

I decided that an online class should employ a correspondence school approach and be in the form of lessons written by the instructor who provides a distinctive, recognizable, and personal “voice.”  That means no canned courses from publishers.  A good online class often turns into a collection of one-on-one tutorials.  Teaching well online is much harder than teaching face-to-face; teaching poorly online is much easier.  The conscientious teacher is hammered by online’s 24/7 ubiquity while his nonchalant colleague checks his inbox once a week.  The brute fact is that in a competitive educational marketplace, as the "higher education bubble" approaches the bursting point, bad education will drive out good education.  If Johnny can satisfy a requirement with a half-baked Poli-Sci robo class offered online in four weeks by a junior college in Idaho, why would he take a rigorous 18 week Poli-Sci class offered online by a junior college in Michigan?  This likelihood made me conclude that no pre-requisite class, such as Freshman Composition, and no gateway courses, such as American Government and Politics, should ever be offered online because the price of rigor is extinction. 

Conversely, online is ideal for what I call “boutique” courses, classes people take because they are interested in the subject, not because they “need” them.  I have designed and written three such online courses:  “Introduction to Great Books,” “Literature By and About Men,” and “More, or Less, Than Human?” which considers literary and cinematic works which speculate on consequences of converging human intelligence and artificial intelligence (MetropolisRUR,  Blade RunnerGattaca, etc.).  None these courses articulate with courses elsewhere but all are rigorous, transferable, and satisfy a humanities requirement (which can be done in much easier ways).

That’s online’s proper role—to supplement face-to-face classes for students in special circumstances (pregnant, remote, homebound) and as a lab for exploration of niche topics.  Will that prevail?  I doubt it.  The combined temptations for administrators of reduced expenses and massive classes, of pajama teaching for instructors (one teacher has her entire load online; she teaches speech), and of ez-clickin’-no-parkin’ classes for students will be too compelling to resist.

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