Mitt Romney: “And that — and that’s why it’s so critical that we make America once again the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy. And that’s not going to happen by — by just hiring teachers. Look, I — I love to — I love teachers…”
Bob Schieffer: “I think we all love teachers.”
Richard Stengel: “The term iron triangle is not from geometry class but from experts describing the three big, interrelated problems facing America’s colleges and universities: access, cost and quality… Higher education has been the great engine of American prosperity, innovation and social mobility, and we weaken it at our own peril. We must find a way to do better.”
In this week’s Time magazine cover story, “College is Dead. Long Live College!,” Amanda Ripley explores the role of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in addressing the crisis of “access, cost, and quality” of higher education in this country. It’s a good article and worth reading. Ripley explores physics courses from two out of the three MOOC start ups gaining a lot of attention right now (Udacity, Coursera, and edX) and compares them to physics courses at the elite Georgetown and the much less prestigious local university, University of the District of Columbia (UDC). As she notes, most online courses these days are both expensive and uninspired. They basically consist of low-budget lectures, Powerpoint slides (with or without narration), and problem sets, and are offered either as an alternative to traditional courses at for-profit online schools or in conjunction with them at brick-and-mortar universities. On the other hand, Udacity and Coursera approach online learning in non-traditional ways, creating student-centered, dynamic courses that retain the attention of thousands of online learners at a time. In one case, when Sebastian Thrun’s Stanford students participated in his Coursera course along with students around the world, the Stanford students scored a full letter grade higher on average than previous classes, but were still edged out of the course’s top performers by 400 online students. Frankly, after hearing how Udacity professor Andy Brown captivates his students by taking them to the birthplace of Archimedes in Siracusa, Italy, encourages them to send in videos of themselves measuring shadows, splices his short lectures with pop quizzes, and inspires his students to such an extent that when a twelve-year-old Pakistani girl loses access to youtube during the final exam, other students from around the world recreate the exam for her, I was inspired to try out some new techniques in my online course and spent the night brainstorming ways to get myself on location to Chengdu.
Ripley provides a fair assessment of the relationship between MOOCs and traditional courses. She finds that the Georgetown and UDC courses provide their students a level of detail, attention, collaboration, and motivation that courses with hundreds of thousands of students simply cannot. Here is her final assessment: “Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all the distractions of higher education – the brand, the price and the facilities – and remind all of us that education is about learning. In addition to putting downward pressure on student costs, it would be nice if MOOCs put upward pressure on teaching quality.” Yes! I completely agree. But what is missing from this article, and from the eight other opinion pieces on “how to fix higher education” that follow it (including pieces by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama) is a discussion of the role of actual TEACHERS in this brave new world as well as what it means to offer COURSES THAT ACTUALLY TEACH the “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills” the authors of the much-quoted 2011 book, Academically Adrift, argue students are lacking (Ripley 37).
In tonight’s presidential debate, the moderator, Bob Schieffer, glibly shut down Mitt Romney’s tortured attempt to maintain that he “loved teachers” while effectively calling for their complete transformation into an insecure labor force by stating, “we all love teachers.” My Facebook wall exploded with fellow teachers who declared that if this was love, they didn’t want any part of it. Teachers cannot do their jobs well if they lack secure employment, a living wage, intellectual agency, and institutional support. Unless we envision an educational system in which a handful of professors from Ivy League schools teach millions of students around the globe with no physical contact between either the instructor and the students or among the students themselves, we need to think about how we position our teachers to learn the dynamic pedagogical strategies implemented by Profs. Brown and Thurn, and utilize them in both online and traditional environments so that students achieve the types of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills that they need in a globalized world.
Today, adjunct professors make up to 75% of academic faculty. That means that 75% of teachers in higher education are often hired on a semester-to-semester basis, are barely paid a living wage for their work, are often ineligible for consistent healthcare benefits, and have little interaction with those offices and programs in the university that are meant to help instructors gain the types of skills Ripley rightly calls for (check out Josh Boldt’s incisive survey of this crisis). For students this means that their professors are not consistently available as mentors, that they are traveling from job to job within a given semester and are therefore not always available on campus nor have the time to devote to intensive feedback, and that classes are not staffed until a few weeks before they begin. And when contingent faculty are hired to teach online courses, these issues are only exacerbated. Learning how to create online courses takes unpaid time and institutional support that instructors are left to seek out on their own. At Cal State Fullerton, where I teach “Gender and Globalization” online, these resources are extraordinary. However, it is very difficult for an instructor to put in the double, even triple, work time to craft an effective online course when they do not know if they will be hired the following semester, thus making all that unpaid time a unsure investment, to say the least. As long as teachers are treated as exploitable and expendable components of the higher education machine, we will not see the types of increases in quality across the board that we must demand of our online courses.
Ripley’s article, as well as Barack Obama’s subsequent opinion piece, focus solely on math and science courses. Yes, clearly, math and science are integral to innovation and growth. But here’s the thing I’ve learned anecdotally from my students: these courses do not necessarily make space for the learning of precisely those skills so needed in our future leaders and innovators: how to make sense of the ideological information bombarding us in our contemporary wired society, how to read history critically to understand the genealogy of current geopolitical crises, how to make a researched and persuasive argument, how to discuss the political issues of our day, how to build one’s own confidence in their ability to transform the world in which they live. Interdisciplinary departments and programs like Writing and Composition, Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, and Ethnic Studies, among others, are built upon the fostering of these skills, among their faculty, their students, and ideally, the greater public. When people like Walter Bumphus, President and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, calls for the elimination of “boutique programs with limited demand or practicality” (Time, 10/29/12, 51), he is in actuality calling for the elimination of programs and courses that are central to preparing students for the future as people who can not just pursue a vocation, but effect transformative change. And if there is anything our desperate public discourse during this election season has shown us, it is that we need to new visions of our economic and social future.
If the “institutionalized disrespect of teachers,” as Valerie Woodward puts it, concerns you, please consider signing the petition below.
Via Ana M. Fores:
Mitt Romney: Look, I — I love to — I love teachers…”
Bob Schieffer: “I think we all love teachers.”
The contingent labor force –what they call us, adjuncts, “add-ons”– is now at least 70% and still growing. That makes us now the majority of the teaching labor force in higher education, the New Faculty Majority. Yet we are not in the front news. We are not talked about. We are not anyone’s concern. We are the invisible. Yet the classrooms keep filling up with students, their test grades keep faltering, and we keep teaching out of car trunks, managing 2, 3, sometimes 4 jobs to eke out a living.
Sign and share this petition: make it go viral so that we can have someone of substance take it to the front page news, to change things around, to better our chances for a future with a real education. http://signon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts?source=s.icn.em.cr&r_by=4164338&mailing_id=6566