My Turn: There’s no substitute for the college experience
There has been increasing criticism of traditional college education in the past decade or so. Much of the focus of such criticism has been focused on cost escalation and the irrelevance of college degrees to work readiness. As a reaction to these concerns, and ever-improving computer technology, there has been a rapid push toward online degrees.
Nationally, the University of Phoenix, Capella University and Arizona State University are most active in recruiting students in New Hampshire. Locally, Southern New Hampshire University has emerged as one of the fastest-growing online universities in the country.
There is no question that technology plays a critical role in education. As a college professor myself, I find access to materials and information vastly improved with the advancement of technology. It helps enhance curriculum, diversity and expansion of resources for information, and, I hate to say it, entertainment value that makes learning more palatable to students and increases their engagement.
In addition, use of technology in teaching at all levels allows education to meet contemporary cultural and social patterns in students’ lives. Our students are very technology savvy and it’s part of their daily lives, therefore, it is only natural for them to expect it as a significant part of their educational experience as well.
But when I look at the emerging trends of 100 percent online degrees, I become alarmed for two reasons: First, it has to do with the unwise transformation of how we deliver or even define education, and second, and perhaps more importantly, it has to do with human development.
An education that is 100 percent online is dubious at best.
Yes, you can deliver curriculum and information, and certainly one can gain knowledge by reading a book, watching a lecture and/or seeing a video. However, teaching and learning is far more than dissemination of information. It is the ability to metaphorically chew the information into smaller bits, integrate the information and digest it so that the salient material is not only extracted but also absorbed into one’s mind.
That requires a dedicated space, a dedicated time and dedicated people. By committing to getting to a classroom and engaging in active listening, asking questions, getting answers from another human being whose vocal intonations, body language and expressions can convey what is seminal to the subject at hand, presents information in a far more meaningful way than passively reading a book or watching a video.
So, while online resources are critical, online education is a term that redefines education in ways that is detrimental to the way our minds grow, expand and learn.
In my classes, when I show a video, we stop the video at critical times, discuss what we just saw, argue about its merits, connect it to what the class learned before, originate new questions or lines of inquiry and make sure everyone is coming along with the level of understanding necessary for competency in the subject matter.
When I assign students to read an online article, watch a related documentary and to discuss it the following week, each person comes back with a different perception. By discussing these perceptions in the classroom, we get to create a multi-dimensional view of the information and critique its value.
The presence of students and faculty in a classroom offers this critical capacity that is not available in online classes
There is another, even more disconcerting and significant problem with 100 percent online learning, and that is the limitation of opportunity for growth and development for young students.
As a former guidance director of a large school, I used to give a lot of lectures to parents of seniors sending off their children to colleges. I used to tell them that college is for the three L’s: learning, loving and living.
What I explained was that, yes, we send our children to college to learn a subject and develop skills that allow them to be gainfully employed and self-sufficient, but getting a degree is not the only thing that makes you self-sufficient.
Ages 17 to 22 are critical years for gaining confidence in independent social settings, learning how to manage and negotiate emotions and intimacy, learning to resolve conflicts, independently self-advocate and so on.
There are hundreds of developmental tasks that are waiting to be explored and honed during this time. Absent any other social institutions that can offer an opportunity for such developmental challenges and growth, students gaining 100 percent online degrees may demonstrate narrowly defined knowledge competencies, but will not have the advantage of exploring life in meaningful ways.
A college education is more than just gaining work-related knowledge and skills for students who are graduating high school. It’s about learning to confront adult issues independently and having structured and abundant opportunities to put oneself to the test. There is a reason why humans collectively decided to create such institutions for their young citizens. We need to understand and honor those reasons. College education is not just about creating workers, it’s about helping evolve our young citizens in ways we cannot do if they stay at home.
Finally, the push toward fast-track, “cheap” college degrees (as some of the aforementioned colleges would like to call them) is partly fed by a degree-obsessed society and corporations that are no longer willing to underwrite skill development of their workforce.
It is more cost-effective for corporations to have students pay, with taxpayer support, for all the needed skills so that they can enter the limited available positions work-ready. Degrees have become substitute evidence for competence both in skills and in intellectual capacity. And so, the illusion that to advance in a career you must have a degree is perpetuated because it supports a vast industry in the business of conferring such pieces of paper.
Of course some degrees are indeed earned with a great deal of effort and vast amounts of learning. But the push to dilute the idea of what a degree means and how it is earned will have a downward force on all degrees. Degrees are not a guarantee of competence. Every bad engineer, doctor, lawyer, college professor or hair stylist is degreed and even licensed.
Yes, college education is excessively expensive, but the answer is not diminishing the college experience. The answer is to remove greed from college operations. There are many ways to reduce cost of college education. There is also the matter of public policy. College education is expensive to individuals because society has not dedicated sufficient tax-based support for it.
If we tighten excesses and wasteful spending in colleges and improve substantially our social support for college education, we can offer our young people the critical opportunity for growth and development. Getting an online degree in 2½ years is not the answer to our higher education dilemma.
(Foad Afshar is a psychologist in Concord and professor of education and psychology at the New Hampshire Institute of Art.)