How Change Happens

Economic storms historically have prompted more adults to seek shelter in the classroom. But this time around, two-year colleges and private for-profit institutions are especially optimistic about attracting more students—and many of those older students will probably take courses online, according to one of the authors of a recent survey.

The 2008 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, released in November before the extent of the recession was clear, found that while all types of colleges anticipate enrollment bumps because of high unemployment, two-year and private for-profit institutions expect to increase their rolls more than others since they “tend to offer programs that have traditionally been tailored to serve working adults.

Recession May Drive More Adult Students to Take Online Courses, STEVE KOLOWICH, January 9, 2009

Step by step, we are creating a new education system without any sense of where we are going. The outlines of the new system have begun to become a little clearer, however. Much of this change is dependent on historical timing. There was the internet boom, which led to the dot-com crash, and then the housing boom. This created a new sort of infrastructure fed by an Utopian ideology that said these technologies ought to be in every home and classroom.

The internet boom jump-started the internet infrastructure, and the collapse of that bubble fed the housing boom, which bought everyone enough time to get these technologies to the point where their effects cannot be reversed. Utopia got us over the rough spots. Now that the housing bubble has burst, dragging the entire economy with it, more people will take advantage of the new infrastructure to use education to improve their chances on the job market, once the bust plays itself out.

All of this is just the public theater of change; behind the scenes, more profound transformations are taking place. As a profession and a public service, higher education has become lopsidedly bifurcated. An increasingly small minority have what was once a relatively secure position in full-time, tenure track positions. The majority do not. Similarly, the old liberal arts model of education threatens to become the privileged experience of a minority.

I understand the funding concerns but I don’t think this is a funding problem. if something is a priority– say, a bank or auto bail out– the money is available. The real questions have to do with the nature of jobs and job security and with the purposes of education. Conservative ideology has made the notion of job security seem antiquated. That magical force, “the market” has supposedly made such a thing impossible. Why should professors be any different?

And technology, rather than education in the old liberal arts mode, has the Utopian edge that pushes people into long term commitments and projects. Don’t get me wrong. I make my living teaching on the internet and I can see the reality of how these new infrastructure has made a certain kind of education more accessible. I worry, though, that as we are busily trying to get through this recession we are normalizing some deep cuts in our expectations.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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