In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors sacking and rehiring the President, in part allegedly because they perceived her to be reluctant to embrace online education in the way they wanted, there has been a good deal of discussion of MOOCs and online courses more generally. I felt then, as I feel now, that there are potentially serious problems with wholly-online degrees; that at the moment, campus education, especially at a prestigious institution, carries more weight. And indeed, one of my fears is that MOOCs end up being used as ways to keep campuses free of students with particular kinds of support needs. Instead of breaking down barriers to social mobility, MOOCs and online education could reinforce them. I drafted this post some time ago and then sat on it, so it’s not exactly a timely contribution to the debate. But the recent accusations that Oxford University demands postgraduate students demonstrate a degree of financial security that many people lack has prompted me to revisit this post as the points about social justice remain relevant.
I followed the UVa goings on closely, partly because I’d not long come back from a wonderful week spent in Charlottesville attending a conference and doing a small spot of guest teaching. Something one of the BoV members said really chilled me. He implied that online education could be a way to appease those calling for local students to have better access to UVa. My sense was that he wanted the campus to remain unchanged, while he offered the traditionally excluded communities (presumably including the black kids my colleague Bonnie Gordon has been working so hard to encourage to think of UVa as their university) an online education so they don’t need to be seen on campus. Well, that’s my take on his remark. Maybe he meant something else.
Before I began my fellowship, I was involved in setting up a doctoral programme in Digital Arts and Humanities at my home institution, University College Cork in Ireland. I am interested in digital scholarship, although I wouldn’t say yet that I do it. I do use a lot of digitised resources. I am a member of an online academic peer mentoring group, so I do see there are opportunities for online networking. I’m an avid user of social media (Facebook and Twitter) and I’ve found it really a great way of advancing some of my own research and developing my thinking. (This post started life as a comment on a Facebook page.) And I’ve watched lectures from iTunesU on occasion, too. But personal interest and professional development as something that enhances on campus development, research and networking, seems quite different from taking an entirely online degree programme, and that’s something I have not yet done. In case it’s not clear from what follows, I am not anti-online education per se. I’m well aware that it is possible to have an excellent online learning experience and a terrible on-campus learning experience. Both forms of education need to be excellent, and ideally they should complement each other (blended learning is all the rage in some quarters).
My prime concern is the perceived status at the moment of different forms of education and how that relates to social justice and privilege. I probably am being somewhat polemical.
Higher education in Ireland (where I’ve had most of my professional experience) seems very different from that in the US. My students have ranged from school leavers to mature students, and includes those who entered our daytime degree programs via our adult education evening access program. Throughout my professional life (and in fact my student life), the majority of my students have been middle class and had a considerable degree of privilege. It could be a reflection of the kinds of topics I chose to teach (primarilly feminism, women, gender; my courses also commonly deal with issues of class, status, race), but many students in my physical seminar and lecture rooms in Ireland were juggling multiple responsibilities–usually a combination of two or more of work, young children, families with alcoholism, poverty, poor mental health, poor physical health including chronic and life-threatening conditions, family violence, and sick parents who need help to run the famiily farm. Some students needed a bit of understanding and some help to take advantage of the same opportunities as anyone else, as best they could, including the opportunity to connect with other students, potential employers, and academics. I’ve heard academics the world over complain about flaky students. In my experience, it’s not usually flakiness, it’s something like parenting while dealing with poor mental health, financial problems, and several generations of alcoholism in the family in a culture that believes these are individual responsibilities entirely divorced from systemic failures of society to provide and care adequately for all its members. I have watched students with these kinds of life difficulties graduate and go on to work or to postgraduate education. It can be done, given the right educational, social and financial support. At least until Ireland’s first emergency budget a few years back there were some supports in place (although not nearly enough) to help underprivileged and non-traditional students get a decent education and have an opportunity to access further/higher education. Sadly, state funding has now been axed at all educational levels (primary school through grad school) for programs that helped students with Traveler heritage, school students with English as a second language, students with disabilities; and because benefits (including child benefit) are being cut, students with children are having a tougher time, too. When I return, I wonder whether I will be teaching a student body as diverse as the one I left. (And the one I left could have been more diverse yet: not only was it very middle class, it was also very white.)
I remain deeply concerned that campus administrators and politicians see online teaching as a way to remove certain students from campus, get rid of a ‘problem’ student who requires a lot of support, and save money by axing the supports needed to help them succeed on campus. In order for non-traditional students to succeed on campus, there needs to be important changes in traditional education. Most times, these kinds of changes improve things for everyone. So, I’m not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing that there needs to be proper social, financial, political support for equality of access to education, and various support structures in place so that students from non-traditional backgrounds can complete successfully: in other words, meaningful social justice on campus.
Right now, it seems like online degrees are shunned by the traditional cohort of single, childless, able-bodied white men and women in their late teens and early 20s from well-to-do backgrounds, with neurotypical approaches to thinking and writing, and allegedly perfect mental health. (I could detour here to discuss the problems with normative masculinity and femininity, but I won’t.) So, the impression is that online ed is second best, because we don’t push the allegedly desirable students toward it. Students from non-traditional backgrounds, though, especially students with caring responsibilities and a job, are often encouraged to consider part-time online education as a solution to the very real problems they have, like finding time to get to a lecture hall. They might be able to find the time if there were adequate structures in place to help, like affordable, good quality child care on campus, a visiting carer to look after the elderly live-in parent, financial support, or day-release from work. I worry that at the moment there is a risk that such students end up in a kind of ghetto. The worst case scenario I can see? If/when online ed (such as MOOCs and so on) start making money, poor and disenfranchised students could effectively be subsidizing the campus educations of the privileged. Of course it doesn’t have to happen like that, and I don’t know an educator who would want to see that happen, but educators often aren’t the people making the policy decisions that ultimately entrench these kinds of social divisions. The prospect of online education becoming an excuse to exclude students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse sets of challenges from campus is very real. I don’t want campus to be a place for the privileged few even more than it already is. And idealist that I am, I can’t help thinking that perhaps Mitt Romney wouldn’t be so clueless about the 47 percent if throughout his life he’d been educated with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse life experiences. And perhaps there would be more students from non-traditional backgrounds and more diverse students entering politics and so on if they had been able to meet, study and socialise with people with those kinds of connections. (Of course, I’m thinking of Bourdieu here.) Perhaps I’m naive and idealistic, maybe even a socialist feminist, but I certainly do not want to teach in such segregated environments. I’ll believe that online education has achieved equal status to campus ed when the likes of the Clintons, Romneys, Bushes, Kennedys, Heinzs, Haugheys, Aherns, Windsors, Blairs, Camerons etc encourage their privileged offspring to take online degrees instead of applying to top ranked universities. In the meantime, I will strive to make my campus university genuinely inclusive, and a place where people from all backgrounds and with all sorts of challenges can get an education and access the same kinds of opportunities side by side.