By Michael Keathley
As pressures to add online classes and programs continue to converge upon the fortresses of modern academia, resistance is responding with an equally powerful force. One of the most interesting tug of wars is between polarized educators who are strongly advocating for online courses and those who are adamantly opposed to eLearning.
Largely because of demand from students, faculty, employers, and other socio-political forces as well as the need to save money and space, many postsecondary institutions are adding online classes at a rate that outpaces face-to-face (F2F) traditional brick and mortar growth. There are other pedagogical arguments that could be made in favor of adding online courses; however, these are not as frequently or as vociferously expressed as the others. It makes one wonder why the business reasons outweigh the pedagogical ones even for the non-profit and public schools who hold their heads high as the ones who value students over profits.
On the other hand, opponents typically cite:
- a belief that students can not get the same experience in an online course as in a traditional F2F class
- that online classes simply do not meet the academic rigor or security of F2F classes
- that online classes do not result in savings and they may be even more expensive
- that eLearning opens the door for all sorts of abuses.
However, the core of the issue for educators may lie elsewhere. As stated by Tina Korbe in a recent article entitled: “University of California teachers’ union aims to block online classes,” the objections expressed by the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), provides a typical example of resistance. It appears, quite understandably, that an often neglected main objection to adding online classes comes down to not only professional, but also personal survival. As Korbe states, “Instructors… are terrified that this is code for cutting their pay, or increasing their workloads, or outsourcing their jobs to interlopers, or replacing them with online teaching software.” One has only to pay attention to the diction in that statement to feel the fear: ‘Pay cuts,’ ‘increased workloads,’ ‘outsourcing,’ ‘interlopers,’ and ‘replaced by technology’ are so commonly used now in the job market, they are almost clichés. Considering the pros, cons, and need for education and its constituents—faculty, administrators, and staff, included—to survive, there is good reason for the uproar.
Korbe’s somewhat snarky comments, echoed by others, that lecturers have “posh jobs” and they are just interested in tenure positions are typical examples of insensitivity, too. This does little to encourage solutions. There is nothing “posh” about living from term/semester to term/semester not knowing if you’ll have a job. There is nothing “posh” about working multiple part-time teaching positions, teaching more classes than a human being can possibly keep up with just so that you can hopefully pay your mortgage payment and utilities this month. There is nothing “posh” about forced unemployment during the summer months or having to go to the extremes that one of my former adjunct instructors did, selling her blood plasma for gas money to drive to campus to teach because the college didn’t offer part-time instructors their first paycheck of the academic year until nearly two months into the fall semester! There’s nothing “posh” about having a PhD and making little more than the fast-food workers who, incidentally, probably have better job security and benefits. As an administrator, I was neither pleased nor living the high life a few years ago while listening to a talented faculty member offer his resignation because being a full-time gas station attendant “paid better, offered benefits, and days off.”
Administrators and outside antagonists need to stop taunting faculty for the passion they have for their profession and their survival.
Responding in Kind
Faculty must also resist the temptation to respond to eLearning advocates in ways that exacerbate the negative. As a faculty member, administrator, and former faculty assembly president for more than two decades, I share with my colleagues great pride in the artistry of teaching. Once upon a time when the push for eLearning began at my institution, I was famous for heroically declaring, “Over my dead body will we offer online classes in this department!” As time went on, however, I was seduced by online opportunities. It began with simple tasks like being able to notify a faculty member’s students that class was cancelled because of illness via the Learning Management System (LMS). Then I discovered that if I made my syllabi and other classroom materials available on the LMS about a week before the first day of class, more than two-thirds of my students typically read them and began class better prepared. Finally, I came to realize the value in eLearning. I realized my fears of virtual education were largely unfounded. Technology, just like pen and paper, wax tablet and stylus before it, is a tool of learning; it will never replace a true teacher nor can it create a valuable educational experience on its own. I began to work with online learning advocates to create equitably rigorous online courses and programs in a way that was cost effective for the benefit of our students primarily and other constituents secondarily.
Honestly, looking back, the rigamortis I had promised over offering online classes was merely a creative expression of my fears about this brave new world that was global and nearly limitless in potential. Like the little creatures at the river’s bottom in Jonathon Livingston Seagull, I was afraid to let go of what had been so comfortable and secure for so long. Would the fast moving current of virtual education be detrimental to my students, our programs, and the college? Would technology replace me professionally? Would I become unemployable as a single father with two children to support? As a department chair and faculty assembly president, could I tell those who looked to me for leadership that their profession and jobs would be safe if we entered the virtual world?
The reality is that these battle lines can be healthy. Educators especially must put down their weapons; we know where living by the sword gets us. They need to do what educated people do best: lead! Together they need to return to the basics of academic research: analyze, synthesize, theorize, and apply.
The Heart of Academia
Online learning offers faculty/administrators the chance to be inspired by new visions of how the artistry of teaching can be delivered in a new modality. This is at the very heart of academia and the etymological meaning of the word ‘educate’—to pull forth from. For example, I was pulled out of my comfort zone to deeply rethink my profession and place in it. How could I energize and engage my online students in a true learning community as I had been able to do in the F2F classroom? How could classroom discussions move from the claustrophobic F2F meeting constraint of two-three hours per week within cement block walls to the breathtaking 24/7 borderless landscape of eLearning? How could I ensure that in every component of my online classes, I not only shared subject matter knowledge, but also that I took my students on an adventure that also improved their literacy skills, their technical fluency, and their communication abilities—all of which are needed to learn and work in today’s world. Closer to home, how could I hone my own skills to meet the demands of my profession during this rapid metamorphosis?
How wonderful is it that education is being forced, as I was, to continually evaluate what it is doing and how it’s being done! How wonderful for our students who continue to benefit from this debate. It should be seen positively as a system of checks and balances where educators in all roles engage in proactive, constructive dialog to meet the needs of all constituents internally (students, faculty, administration, and staff) and externally (employers, politicians, etc.). Here again, the University of California provides a concrete example of a positive solution. Korbe shares that together the UC-AFT and administration came up with an agreement “that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in ‘a change to a term or condition of employment’ of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.” This helps alleviate faculty fears about their positions and shares ownership of the process, allowing all to focus on best practices of online education. This is a healthy step forward that other institutions and faculty organizations should emulate.
Newton’s First Law of Motion
Certainly Newton’s First Law of Motion may also apply to people: A body remains at rest unless acted upon by an external force. If there were no demand for online learning and no push back from concerned educators to maintain academic criteria, education would remain at rest and not evolve into the multitude of viable incarnations that are developing via the Internet. Consider just some of the categories in this arena available to today’s student:
• Traditional F2F
• Hybrid (a combination of F2F + online)
• Supplemented (F2F with online activities)
• Job Training • Certification
• Courses only
This is only a partial list, and the options and opportunities within each seem nearly limitless.
Fear Looks; Faith Leaps
Although opponents to virtual education are correct that institutions shouldn’t rush to drive the eLearning bandwagon into their curriculum, educators also must not fear the movement so much that they argue for a total moratorium. All sides working together can certainly arrive at winning solutions for all involved. Make the leap of faith to trust in your colleagues and your students to explore fully the benefits of online learning rather than reject it. The University of California is doing so, and this former opponent has now enjoyed working full-time in the virtual world for over ten years.
This article was originally posted at http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/news/2011/10/17/opposition-to-elearning-is-healthy-for-its-growth/