Education, Class, a Rock, and a Hard Place

Even as the recession technically ends, U.S. universities, a lumbering battleship that’s almost impossible to turn, show signs of some slow changes, perhaps for the better, that might help to make education more accessible. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, though. On the one hand we can make education more accessible via new communication technologies. On the other hand, distance education risks denaturing learning, further alienating students who mistrust schools.

“Reform has more do with rethinking the way we design and deliver learning opportunities… ” J. David Armstrong, Jr. president of Broward College writes, “and understanding the nature of today’s learner, who wants to be engaged, yet needs convenient access.” And increasing access increasingly means reaching non-traditional students: “Reform must include new strategies to support students completing their degrees, and attracting adults back into our educational system to complete their education” (“Online learning opens doors wider for students in tough economy”).

Armstrong’s argument sounds fancy but it’s really simple. U.S. education can use their existing facilities more effectively and so lower the costs of education by using distance education. Your physical plant stays the same (offices and classrooms basically) but the number of students increases exponentially. The key term is “engaged.” That is, how can you make online education feel as personal, as involved, as the traditional classroom? Here’s where the rock meets the hard place of making education cheaper.

Even after decades of replacing full time faculty with adjuncts, and splitting U.S. higher education into a shrinking pool of tenured haves and non-tenured have not’s, administrators are not done cutting costs. Enter Twitter and Facebook. “95 percent of students ages 18 to 24 use social-networking tools,” according to a recent study, “including instant messages and texting, 64 percent multiple times a day. Yet just 18 percent do so for schoolwork, and 27 percent never do. Just 5 percent never use social networks (“Social networks not just for chatting anymore“).

There are lots of ways that schools can make learning more engaging. Pay teachers well, and keep their workload low; keep classes small; eliminate students loans and fund education through generous grants. All of these things would create the impression that school is a welcoming place, a time to reflect and rethink and then go back to your life with a new perspective and some new skills. But administrators see those numbers that show so many people using social networking and they think: Twitter costs almost nothing …

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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