The View From Away: Online college education isn't college or education

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A friend recently sent me an article predicting the imminent demise of college as we know it at the hands of the cheaper, more efficient Internet.

My friend sees this trend toward online higher education as an opportunity for me to teach in the digital classroom. She may be right. God knows I have failed to convince the educational community that lessons learned during a lifetime of pursuing a career in the media might be of some value in a traditional classroom. Perhaps developing a curriculum and hanging out my shingle in a website is the way to go.

However, and I don’t want to be King Canute here, standing on the beach commanding the tide not to come in, but I really hate this trend, and I don’t think a wholesale shift to online education is good for us.

The author borrows heavily from the rhetoric of file-sharing apologists who like to cast themselves as revolutionaries: “I’m not stealing the music, I’m just stickin’ it to The Man, man.” At best that is only partly true.

File sharing is also “stickin’ it to” the artists, who have already been screwed by The Man. The companies that have charged too much for content and limited the consumer’s ability to pick and choose what to buy have also used all their leverage to keep content creators from getting a fair share of the revenue they generate.

Having walked a picket line to get large multinational corporations to part with even this unfair percentage, I deeply resent being denied it. When I bring this up with file sharers, their reaction is more or less to point over my shoulder, say, “Look over there!” and run away.

The more glib apologists say they are simply facilitating a transformation to a more democratic creative industry in which future artists control their own destiny. That may turn out to be true, but they are doing it on the backs of the backs of current artists. It is laughable to ennoble the millions of file sharers who get free downloads for one reason only: because they can.

In fact, the higher education argument holds more water if only because the trend to online education is driven in part by educators, so it is less about legality and more access. On some levels, the argument about redressing grievances caused by an arrogant industry is more compelling. A college education has been a critical step in upward mobility, yet access has become increasingly difficult. College tuition has risen faster than inflation for years; college debt keeps going up; employers complain that more and more college graduates leave school without practical workplace skills.

Meanwhile, there are studies indicating that technology teaches people better and faster than the ancient model of dormitory life, tests, and classes taught by analog real-time information disseminators, i.e., teachers. As top universities like MIT and Harvard are making lectures by their world-renowned faculty available online, the incentive to spend four or more expensive years at college is about to disappear, and soon, a diploma won’t be worth the hopelessly outmoded delivery system (paper) it’s printed on.

I sympathize to an extent. Computers and the Internet are revolutionary educational tools that allow a teacher to reach more people at one time. I am sure I was not the only one who had to prop his eyelids open in a hot lecture hall while some brilliant scholar who also happened to be a crashing bore stared at his shoes and droned on in a monotone. If the only reason to go to college is to sit in a classroom and have information downloaded into your head, it is far more efficient to download it digitally.

However, am I the only one who found college invaluable for a thousand experiences outside the classroom? Is it possible that I am the only one who learned how to manage time, balance work, studies and leisure time in college, mostly from juggling everything I was doing outside the classroom? Am I the only one who discovered outside-the-classroom activities and relationships that would enrich the rest of my life?

It seems to me that critics of the status quo should be looking for ways to make the residential college experience more accessible, not ways to replace it. Perhaps it does not have to be four years. Maybe the university of the future can borrow from the low residency I recently experienced at USM, getting an MFA in creative writing. The students came together twice a year for 10 days to two weeks that were almost total immersion, with classes, seminars, discussions and readings from early morning until well into the night. The rest of the year, mentors guided self-study. Digital media were used heavily in both the resident and nonresident parts of the program, but the human element was not abandoned.

I may simply resent the author’s patronizing, intellectually suspect attitude. He is an Ivy League graduate dismissing many colleges as theme parks for the privileged. He says these schools are about to get their comeuppance because the virtual student won’t get the value he got from living with other bright, intellectually ambitious students and having direct access to world-class scholars, but that doesn’t matter much because they can watch kids like him on the computer while they do get that value.

It’s like a guy rolling down the window on his Rolls to tell the guy standing on the corner, “Basically, this is just a hunk of junk. All you need is a bike.”

We definitely need to reform college education, but greater access to data is not an adequate substitute for the experience. There is reason why the Interweb is called the virtual world: it isn’t real, and it is almost, but not quite as good.

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Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.