Letter to CBC Radio in response to Ira Basen’s documentary, The Big Disruption: Universities in the Digital Age (The Sunday Edition, 9 September 2012). Posted by permission.
To CBC Sunday Morning
As a professor in an Ontario university I listened with great interest to Ira Basen’s probing and thoughtful documentary last Sunday concerning on-line university teaching, an issue that is currently roiling universities. I found plausible the program’s conclusions that certain subjects, particularly non-verbal ones, can be well taught virtually but that those involving reading and critical thinking are less amenable to virtualization, and that, in any case, good on-line teaching will remain labor intensive, not least because of the work involved in valid assessment.
However, in focusing solely on these pedagogical questions, I think Mr. Basen missed the real story here, which is the way in which the idea of on-line education affords a fantasy of university education without its chief production costs, most importantly, intensive professorial labor. This vision appeals to university administrators because the government contribution to university budgets has radically diminished over the last quarter of a century as a result of the refusal of governments to tax our productivity at a rate that will actually pay for basic social needs like the education of the next generation. The fantasy appeals to governments like the one here in Ontario, because it permits them to persist in this refusal.
The program’s focus on the question of whether on-line education “works,” in the sense of producing comparable “outcomes” without the production costs, feeds this fantasy insofar as it implies that were the answer to be “yes” then it would follow that we should pursue on-line university education on the grounds of cost effectiveness. But the flaw in this construction of the question is that it misses what a university is and the way it is not like a corporation: a university’s production “costs” are also its reason for being. Overlaps in expertise, which might represent inefficiency in a corporation, are a sign of robustness in a university. Two professors in the same field will think about it differently and so challenge and inform one another and their students. Three would be still better. Real knowledge is produced through costly diversity among scholars and researchers in conversations with one another conducted in person, on-line, in books and in work in laboratories, libraries and in the field. Real university education is participation in this process. You can’t have the one without the other.
The hollowing out of public universities across North America has been ongoing for years, with full responsibility faculty being replaced by adjuncts, graduate student teachers, or not at all. The on-line agenda that would exchange ballooning classes taught by underpaid adjuncts for on-line courses designed by a few research professors but administered to still larger numbers (presumably by low paid adjuncts) hastens rather than arrests this impoverishment.
Ira Basen’s judicious, qualified answer to the question “does it work” is as good as any I’ve heard, but it may not matter much because those who urge the question have already decided that however “good” on-line is, it’s all that we can afford.
Elizabeth HansonProfessor, Department of English Queen’s University