Do we really love our teachers? Online education and the future of college

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.


About priyajshah31

I'm Priya J. Shah, Ph.D. I taught courses on gender and sexuality, imperialism, globalization, and the politics of style for over five years and am currently pursuing my other passion for the arts.
This entry was posted in Academia, Online Learning, Pedagogy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Do we really love our teachers? Online education and the future of college

  1. Emily Reyes says:

    I was disappointed that the only mention of education in tonight’s debate was the need for math and science teachers. As an educator possessing a degree in Elementary Education, I haven’t even had the opportunity to teach in a classroom because our public schools are in a hiring freeze. They’ve been playing musical chairs with teachers who’ve been pink-slipped, then, given back their jobs or given priority to apply for available positions. Teachers are getting moved around, but no new blood is even allowed in unless, of course, you have a degree to teach secondary level math or science. It’s frustrating because Elementary educators are critical in setting the foundation for a lifetime of learning. Folks like me who want to teach in a classroom don’t even get a chance to prove ourselves because there are no positions available for us. What happens to me and my fellow recent grads? Aren’t my skills important too? Can’t I be a contributor to foster our youth in this increasingly globalized world? Romney offers opportunities for entrepreneurs, so I feel ignored by both candidates right now. I am definitely not feeling the love.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Thank you for your comment Emily! Your perspective is being completely ignored in this so-called discourse we are having on teaching. It is incredibly frustrating that those of us who have so much passion and a desire to teach young people are being boxed out and disincentivized while people on high keep making irrelevant rhetorical gestures.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I suppose making the cover of Time is a sign of having arrived… or at least achieving a week of fame (rather more than 15 minutes). Were you inspired to take one for yourself all the way through to the end like any other student or just inspired by Time™? Good, bad, indifferent… probably here to stay in some form but still an emergent form so no telling in what that will be. I see both possibilities and problems, especially for the precarious academic workforce.

  3. Ana M. Fores says:

    It seems this is happening at every end, because on the other end too, we are being edged out: we have too much experience, we are too qualified, blah blah blah. And so it goes. They don’t want educators. They want the cheapest commodity. And what they are getting is the ruination of American society. Priya has written about this new reality in very succinct terms, yet this reality is horrifying.

  4. Valerie Woodward says:

    Illuminating and yet depressing at the same time.

    Not only are teachers unloved in our society, but, let’s face it, children are most definitely not being loved and cared for either. Despite the fact that the mantra of “it’s for our children’s future” is consistently used by both the right and the left, no one is pushing to repeal Prop. 13 in California (which keeps property taxes artificially low thus starving schools of needed tax monies), investing in quality child care for families of every socio-economic level, or even protesting the increasing criminalization of being a teenager through measures like curfews or outlawing certain activities or gatherings that are only applicable to those under 18.

    The institutionalized disrespect of teachers is a symptom of how our society has devolved into a “me first” mentality that is sacrificing the most vulnerable.

  5. priyajshah31 says:

    Vanessa, Ana, and Valerie, thank you for your comments. I do think that this discourse of “democratizing education without democracy” is becoming increasingly mainstreamed. Making the cover of Time magazine seems to mark the emergence of a certain limited way of thinking about things into pop cultural hegemony. From my vantage point, I see that both the general public and college administrators are increasingly turning to online education as a “magic bullet” to “fix” higher education (and make themselves a lot of money). I do think there are ways we can continue to improve our pedagogy, and that we should be having discussions about best practices for online teaching since it is going to be part of our future. But that being said, we also need to intervene in this discourse that uses the language of access to disenfranchise both students and teachers, and turns over the commons to the private, for-profit sector.

  6. Ana M. Fores says:

    Thanks so much for adding the petition here, Priya: let’s hope we get more signatures. We need them!

  7. WordyDoodles says:

    Signed (and good thing it’s and not Wish I had more time to properly reply! Thank you for writing this. It’s an abomination how much we pay lip service to teachers and not much else, much the way we pay lip service to motherhood and yet applaud family-unfriendly corporate policies and legislation.
    I hear you on the radio silence on teachers other than math and science. There is probably a lot of politics behind only mentioning those disciplines. I will say that well-taught science classes produce excellent critical thinkers whose contributions to society aren’t limited to science. They sometimes go on to law school, or to administration, to politics, to raise kids who are curious and to take on other leadership positions– just as motivated students outside math and science do.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Anita, you are absolutely right! I was worked up and made a generalization about math and science classes that is clearly not always the case (although, I do believe it is the case that courses in the Humanities and interdisciplinary programs are places where these skills are foundational). I think of Derek as the type of physics teacher that does do all of the above! Give him my apologies =)

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