Thursday, August 2, 2012

Stupid On-line University
Hello. Reporters find it hard to fill summer newspapers. For me, August is my month of fewest readers. So here is a summer piece:

Stupid On-line University

To me, university is students sharing a passion for ideas, whether it's about the meaning of life or about whether, during the war on drugs, a ten minute cut to a commute time is worth destroying or blasting in two an urban neighbourhood... for a freeway that could otherwise go around.
Steve Jobs: "There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and ichat," he said. "That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, p 431

~ I forget whether it was in Movement class or in Drama class that Joyce pointed out to us how we would now understand so much more about the people of show business and Hollywood. True. And so sometimes, when reading slick magazines, I just can’t play along with all the fawning hype about actors. Do others really believe the hype?

Furthermore, while of course TV repair and tech courses can be done on-line, do others really believe the hype that on-line degree programs are good? "New and exciting," sure, but—"good?" To me they're "stupid." True, my worst college math class was a glorified correspondence course, and yes, we all knew students in the fuzzy “document and footnote” classes who passed by cramming— and then forgot everything, but we also knew keen students who managed to have collateral learning while maximizing the value of every day of their classes.

My best university math teacher would start to solve a question with “Step one: don’t panic.” She’d finish with, “Now I can be happy!” It was uplifting: you had to be there. If you attended her optional Saturday morning math laboratory —and I would walk through deep snow to attend one— she would help you only with the proviso that you go forth and teach two classmates. Discerning the collateral benefit of her class is an exercise I will leave for students of higher learning.

Good classes include learning from in-class discussions and student questions. My favourite classes—movement, social work communication and drama— absolutely needed to be longer than the standard one-and-a-half hours, needing in-class time for us to warm up, warming to each other more than to the demands of the material. These classes could never be taught on-line. In fact, even if taught in-class, results are not guaranteed. A colleague once explained to me how housewives majoring in social work still hadn’t, by their fourth semester, internalized the ethics of their chosen profession. The examples he related were horrible.

I’m sure dusty memory work and documenting, perhaps suitable for on-line, have their place, but still, there are good reasons why the schools of the ancient Greeks had such a diverse curriculum, a curriculum including so many hands-on classes.

If the "on-line classes" hype is merely a shared pretence, like Hallowe'en, then I don’t mind the pretend excitement. My concern is when people really do believe the hype. I'm afraid society is drifting towards believing in on-line academics, and then I imagine politicians taking advantage, jumping in to push on-line classes as a cost cutting measure. Not good.

You can’t blindly trust the universities on this one, not when they are mesmerized by dollar signs, not the same universities that refused to stock in their bookstores a literary work by a fellow named Salman Rushdie… In fact, I trust politicians more than I trust universities.

Sean Crawford
In a city with one and a half universities
(one has no tenure)

(All but the opening was originally posted as footnotes to my Creative Movement (April 2012) essay)
~ As a civilian and writer, I could have simply ended this Creative Movement essay nice and clean, no footnotes.
As a citizen, I had to speak up.

New Footnotes:
~I guess Jobs would like Joss. Here's a link to a University Attendance Policy for a Joss Whedon conference explaining why using a computer or video for on-line presentations while not showing up is discouraged. (See remote attendance policy)

~and here's a metaphor: an in-class university is like having your office door open:
"Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, ``The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.'' I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame."

The speaker is Richard Hamming, speaking on You and Your Research, linked through my favourite web essayist, Paul Graham, in his piece on Good and Bad Procrastination.

Like Hamming, I have faith in you and your research to find a link to him. If I don't link for you in the above paragraph it's because I believe what I said in No Links is Good Links. (archived July 2012)

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