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Commentary & Opinion

Herbert London: The University Resistance Movement

It was bound to happen. The professoriate has risen in opposition to on-line education. Philosophy professors at San Jose State University said they refuse to use material from an on-line course taught by Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, for fear administrators were angling to cut departmental expenses.

Duke University professors voted against on-line courses by suggesting these programs do not offer self-paced learning nor do they include “the responsiveness of a professor who teaches to the passions and curiosities of students.”

In every instance where rejection of on-line courses occurred, professors bent over backwards to assert they don’t oppose on-line technology, only the collaboration “with an outside vendor that might pose a threat…to their principles.”  That appears to be a rationalization. In frank discussion, professors invariably raise the issue of replacement and the dismantling of departments.

Some critics contend that two classes of universities could emerge: one, well funded colleges in which students get their own professors; the other, financially stressed colleges in which students take on-line courses. Of course, this picture is exaggerated, but it is conceivable that on-line programs could put marginal institutions into a parlous economic state.

Duke’s faculty members drew a line in the sand indicating that on-line courses are fine, but at Duke they will not be credit bearing. The San Jose State University faculty members were far more direct in attributing motivation to the on-line experience. In their mind, on-line, even blended, courses are on outright effort to restructure the American university system in general, “and our California State University system in particular.” As they see it, this experiment hasn’t pedagogical value; it is merely a financially driven innovation to cut costs.

There isn’t any question that on-line courses have financial implications. There is some justifiable fear that faculty members share. In some sense, however, this resistance is comparable metaphorically the way horses reacted to the tractor. Horses become anachronistic the day tractors were used to plow the fields. One could argue that there isn’t a need for the duplication of so many professors across the higher education landscape now that a technology can provide a quality offering to thousands in different locations and with vastly different schedules. One need not be bound by geography or the clock.

Some of the criticism directed at on-line courses could apply to conventional course offerings. In some instances students that will be curious and even evoke a desire for further learning. Other courses will be boring, demanding little from students but an attenuated yawn. The key, of course, is finding the best that is known and the best that can be delivered. Thank you Matthew Arnold.

Ultimately a professor who inspires students cannot have a value attached to his efforts. But how many fall into that category? Moreover, how many universities are really needed? And as a corollary, validation of skill and knowledge should be seen a more important that “seat time.” As a consequence, opening degrees, or a validation process, to a variety of options makes sense on any number of levels.

The resistance movement is in full swing, but where it will get the professoriate remains to be seen. I’m betting on the technology. Universities have been entrenched in antediluvian approaches for too long. A new day is dawning and the horses are very uneasy.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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