Broken enough that we can lay the blame for the manipulation of the 2016 election at the feet of college faculty who refuse to put their courses online.
Everyone thinks our educational system is broken. At least that is the view from outside the educational systems. How broken depends on where you are in relationship to the part of the educational system that is your highest concern. For K-12 it is either a total disaster or amazingly successful. From the inside it can be very difficult to work with and very frustrating to change but, overall, the public system has and continues to educate millions of kids. This happens despite the constant challenges of diverse children with diverse languages, families, teachers, community groups, and politicians determined to make a name for themselves as fast as possible.
For higher education it’s an even bigger mess unless you have kids who can get accepted and afford to go to a sixty thousand dollar a year university. That is until they graduate and, having spent a life time’s income for most people, you have your well educated offspring sleeping at home again and looking for a new gig. There is also the growing problem of those ‘guaranteed success’ students who feel they have been forced through a high pressure system with no clear reward for the pain. But that is another topic.
At the other end of the higher education scale we have the community colleges that live half in the university world and half in the plumbers, skilled technicians, and hair stylists world. The first of those worlds was the discount route to a liberal arts or science degree and the second was a route to a job. As we just noted the first route may not lead to an income nor get you out of your parent’s house but the second could very well do both but leave you being harassed by your school to “get a degree”. Beyond that there is the rarely mentioned problem of not really wanting to work as even a moderately well paid wage slave. In that case you are pretty well on your own.
This is, in fact, very much the same problem as what is causing K-12 to be considered a failure. That is the old problem, old by now, of not educating people for what they both want and need. That dichotomy is also a problem but that is an actual educational issue that can be solved. You need to help people understand what they need and, if you’re good, getting them to want that. Skillful people have been doing that for centuries. But you need to be able to help them learn to identify what they need and then assist them in getting that. Unfortunately that is not what is happening and, as a result, there is a steady decline of enrollment. Who wants to pay a lot of money just to give someone else, namely a teacher, a nice job. That does not have a good future.
Over all of this hangs the horror of AI and the end of jobs as we know it. That is actually a very real situation but not in the way that it has been continuously presented. Yes, many jobs will disappear and some day most of what we consider jobs will be done by automated systems. Professions will still be around and will expand. Grunge jobs will go away first and that will slowly expand to eliminate most of the ‘good’ jobs that people who start out in grunge jobs get promoted to in middle management. That is not a loss that people should be concerned about. Those are often classic wage slavery and we are going to be able to do better than that. But only if we get our educational act together and, incidentally, reorganize society, and the economy. But let’s take this a step at a time. Education first.
Educational systems are incredibly conservative. Within this K-12 is the most conservative because everyone went through it and if you have kids you get to, vicariously, go through it again. That creates an incredible demand that the school remain familiar so you know what your kids will go through. Not a good idea but that is what it is. Higher education is conservative but the community colleges are the newest component and the most stressed by their double life. They are, after all, neither fish nor fowl so they are more adaptable and don’t have rich alumni to raise hell about changes. In fact it’s hard to even find someone who will admit to being an alumni. But they are conservative because they are, usually, part of a state university system in the US and are deemed to be degree feeder institutions. Hence the common disdain for the career and technical programs unless they lead to a traditional degree. And that is where change needs to come.
The whole educational system needs to loosen up and become much more diverse while becoming both more practical and more creative. These have always been considered to be opposing forces but they now need to merge. And that does not mean to force technical and career students to study liberal arts in the old style. It really means creative. So we need to figure how to do that.
Changing the system
Changing any large, well entrenched system is very difficult. Changing the means of livelihood of a large base of professional educators who don’t want to change is nearly impossible. So where do we start?
We are well along in paradigmatic cultural change driven by a complex matrix of information technology, social media, growing resources and growing populations that will be almost completely urban based within twenty years. This produces a continual mix of cultural expectations, concerns, and fears. All of these are open to manipulation for power and gain. As we approach the middle of the first half of the 21st century we are riding antic boats in a violent and confusing storm system. That produces very troublesome reactions in the most change challenged parts of our population. These people tend to grasp desperately at the vestiges of the life that they grew up in. Depending how dogmatic they are they can become completely devoted to returning to something that never existed and violently opposed to anything else. This leaves them open for the oldest type of political manipulations based on fear. Needless to say they tend to cling most tightly to antiquated educational patterns or deny the value of education at all because that is, even in the most conservative form, a guaranteed process of change.
As Marshal McLuhan brilliantly defined over forty years ago, the medium is the message. And that is the most important way to foster educational change.
If you attempt to tell educators to teach their subjects in a different way they will mostly refuse. If they don’t refuse they will careful comply with the required change by creating a token compliance that becomes camouflage to continue with no change at all. We have had increasingly cunning examples of that over the years in education and very seriously in higher education. The community college educator is very well trained in avoiding change. But the online course is the trojan horse that will begin the necessary changes.
The answer is online content
But first we need to be very clear on the nature of the paradigmatic shift that is transforming our planetary society. The nature of complex non-linear change is that it can’t be understood by simple cause and effect. We know that the full paradigm change we are struggling through is the product of technology, specifically information and communication technology merging in a virtual and digital world. We are most involved now in the effects of this on politics generated primarily by social media as a tool for thought management. These systems are so different that we don’t know how to determine truth or falsehood without very active mental involvement. This, of course, is only one piece of what is happening and we will be devastated soon by new changes while we are still struggling to figure out the last changes. That is what is happening as we deal with education that has so far failed to adapt to the new reality. And it is a new reality with new languages and new laws of social dynamics.
If we back up and look at this from a broader view the general desire for or fear of technology driven change has the internet as the medium of transformation. Initially this was seen as simply putting information on a web site as a good way to make information easier to find and available to everyone everywhere. We are well beyond that now. Control of information is the new key to political control. Specifically limiting access supports the old forms of political power. If access can’t be controlled then new information needs to be manufactured as alternative facts that can be marked as the ‘real’ information. Sadly, this is a result of the failure of education, specifically higher education, to move aggressively online in support of analysis and information validity. This must change quickly or we may never regain control of truth in our information. But this is also the way to achieve educational change. This is a classic feedback loop.
The key is moving educational content online. From the perspective of pedagogy this does not necessarily mean eliminating the traditional classroom or the traditional classroom experience. It does change that experience by making the content presented in the classroom available at any time to the people who are taking that class. That’s all that is required to begin the transformation. Lectures my still be given in the classroom but they are also produced for online delivery. Or they can be done for online delivery instead of delivery in the classroom allowing classroom time to be used for student interaction, presentations, discussion, etc. That is the “flipped” or “hybrid” classroom. The problem is that roughly 50% if existing faculty refuse to do any content online. Why?
The general assumption is that the core issue is job security. The potential for online courses to replace thousands of faculty is one of the earliest recognized effects of technology and automation. The rapid spread of online corporate and Department of Defense training is carefully ignored by higher education but is perceived as a threat. But this is a remnant of the over reaction to paradigmatic change. While there will be many jobs eliminated by automation in the coming years the majority will simply be changed. In many cases the change will make the job more rewarding by eliminating repetitive work. For higher education at the frist stage this is simply producing higher quality lectures and presentations that are made available online and updated when new information or a change of focus is warranted. Students have full access on their schedule and the faculty member gains time for discussion during student interaction rather than simply repeated the same content each semester. The hidden reason for rejection is how easy it is to simply repeat the same class presentations each semester. After a few years you can do it in your sleep. But that needs to be hidden and reasons need to be presented for refusing to develop hybrid courses with improved student completion and efficiency. This produces the results that we see: Students think that hybrid courses are the most effective way to achieve their educational goals, faculty think almost exactly the opposite. This is a very practical management problem.
Eliminating alternate facts
As I mentioned above this failure to disruptively change higher education has far larger consequences than have been generally realized. The population of the United States was selected and manipulated very effectively in the 2016 national election. This was done via the primary route that many people now obtain news and general information, social media. Fake news and all levels of propaganda were used to influence the disastrous results that are still dragging the country down. The problem of propaganda and fake news is education in how to evaluate online information and how to verify facts.
Evaluating information, understanding facts, and determining valid information is the essential objective of liberal arts education and of all forms of higher education. It is my contention that the failure to work with basic adult education online led directly to the populations failure to detect bad information. The refusal of faculty to disrupt old forms of higher education has seriously damaged this countries government and cultural survivability. Perhaps it is only the most basic education in simply being critical of information thrown at you without references or confirming sources. Nationally we may pay the ultimate price for this failure to train our population caused by a failure to update our higher education to meet 21st century needs.
One online change to change education
The key is the process of putting course content online. You don’t need to go to the level of running the course as a full online course. You just need to start putting your content online. Why is this so important? Because it forces you to completely develop the content independent of the students. In teaching a traditional course you rely to a greater or lesser extent on student interaction. Even for the lecture part of a course when you are giving information or analysis of a situation you react to the students body language even if they don’t say much. In some cases that is all that you have but you get use to it. In many cases you can leave a good part of a specific class session to students, usually only one or two, who can take up a lot of time. This may be very useful educationally depending on your style and the care you put into directing the discussion but the point is that it is also a good way do minimal preparation and get through the class. Building a complete set of class lectures online with supporting media and exciting presentation skills is a lot of work. Plus other people may look at your class video presentations and be critical of your performance. This may be unacceptable to the experienced sage on stage.
The point is not that faculty in colleges and universities are lazy or take the easy way out, at least no more than other professionals. The process of building online presentations forces you to think about the entertainment value of you are doing. It also gives you the ability to provide direct links or added media material to a presentation. This produces a much higher quality class session.
Because you are creating this independently of the courses students you become much more concerned with their reaction. Ah, that’s right, because you are building the content online you have more time to interact with the students in the class. Do it well and they will critique both your content and your presentation.
You also learn the attention span of the students. Most people now do not react well to a class presentation that extends more than fifteen minutes without a break. Building course content makes you much more aware of how the students will use your presentation. It is, after all, no longer a one time event. Some of your students will actually go back over portions of your presentation and then ask you questions about it.
Obviously there is a great deal of pedagogical value in all of these things. But from the larger perspective you, as the instructor producing video presentation for online delivery become part of the online information system. You discuss the process as well as the content. You discover how students react and misunderstand your presentation. You can then assist them in asking the right questions as they watch a new presentation. It is impossible to ignore the ease with which false information can be used online particularly if you are producing online information.
Having worked through this myself in online course and program development since 1997, learning the realities of information validation cannot be avoided while doing this. This is the knowledge that should have been provided to students by higher education faculty over the last fifteen years or ten years at least. It wasn’t and they mostly still refuse. The result is not, just inefficiency in college education but a critical failure to educate the population on the how online information works.
We need to make sure that all college and university courses are partially taught online so that there is a constant process of learning being shared. This may have prevented some of the manipulation in 2016. We definitely need to take this as an educational responsibility from now on.