Welcome to Virtual U

Why is cyberspace sucking the college experience into a black hole? 'It all comes down to money'

THE LITTLE MAN ON YOUR SHOULDERIt's September again, which means tens of thousands of you are back on the road, inching your way up and down the 405, the 91, the 5, the 57, heading toward one campus of higher education or another, matriculating because . . . because-well, because college is what you do after high school, or because college is where your friends are, or because your mother set you on this path when you were 3, or because you're afraid you'll end up working at Sears if you don't, or because you harbor a secret love for Emily Dickinson or Minoan pottery and know that college is the only reliable place to find other people who do, too. Whatever the reason, there's got to be a better way to go about it than sitting stalled on the freeway every morning listening to Howard Stern: your makeup's smearing from the heat, and you know that'll only get worse when you get to the campus parking lot, which is three-fourths of a mile from your first class, which means you'll be late and will have to sit in the 19th row of the amphitheater and look over the heads of 250 classmates at that old man at the lectern who's talking about-oh, what the hell is he talking about? You can hardly hear him, and you didn't finish the reading because you had to work late last night at Sears, which is where you're going to end up working for the rest of your life if you don't pass this class. And so you ask yourself a fatal question: Isn't there an easier way to get a college education?Whereupon a little man, who looks exactly like a computerized composite of the faces of the leaders of America's technocracy, with eyes and glasses that look an awful lot like Bill Gates', perches on your shoulder and says, "Hey, little one, come with me."And where does he take you? He takes you home, to your cozy little apartment or house, to your own bedroom, where he tells you to relax, set a pillow under your butt, sit down, and boot up that dinky IBM clone of yours. He has you point your Internet browser to a virtual-university site, where you discover-hey, cool!-that you can take fully accredited college courses entirely online, that you can earn degrees without leaving your room, without ever having to meet anyone face-to-face.The little man on your shoulder is quick to point out that this is not your granddaddy's correspondence school from the '50s. Neither is it the college TV course that plays on public TV. He clicks on an icon, and there, on the Web site's home page, is a preview of everything you need to take an online course on Emily Dickinson. Here's an icon that will take you to the course's syllabus. Here's one that'll take you to this week's lecture; another lists a bunch of Dickinson hyperlinks on the Internet where you can download Dickinsoniana. Over here, an icon takes you to some audio links of a famous actress's rendition of "I Dwell in Possibility"; another takes you to your e-mail box, where you can post and receive messages to and from your instructor. This button takes you to a chat room, where you can communicate asynchronously with other students (you post on your own time, and they will get back to you on theirs) in your virtual classroom; another leads to a course bulletin board, where students tack up ideas, exercises and whole papers that you can read and respond to. The little man also tells you that in this course, you don't have to "come to class" at any particular time because whenever you decide to get there, the course will be there, too, suspended in cybertime, waiting for you. (In fact, the most popular time to work on online courses, he says, dutifully citing the latest research, is between 1 and 4 in the morning.) There will be no more freeway logjams, no more time lost wading through parking lots, no more smeared makeup, no more standing in line, no more professor mumbling so far away in a lecture hall that he, to you, is a better example of "distance learning" than what the little man has been showing you on your monitor. Higher education comes home, says the little man, via trillions and trillions of electrons sent over high-speed ISDN lines.And oh, yes, he says, smiling a smile that you sometimes see in the dark corners of your dreams: pay no attention to that corporate logo on the syllabus or to the advertising for Amazon.com sprinkled through the Web site. That's just a little something to hold down costs. Remember, he says: everything is here for your convenience.Now, what do you have to say to the little man? I'm not one to put words in your mouth, but I recommend the following, stated calmly and with conviction after you've duly considered what matters to you in your education: look, you weasely homunculus, if you think that online courses can serve as a genuine substitute for what happens in a classroom-for the eye contact with a professor that seals an insight; for the spontaneous serendipitous student comment that changes the course of a class's discussion; for the intangible, vital, genuinely ineffable things that go on in a room when people are thinking and talking in the physical presence of one another-then you're either deluded or you slept through college. Then flick him off your shoulder, and tell him to leave you the hell alone. WWW.ONLINEINTRO.EDUYet the little man isn't going anywhere. He also isn't making any of this up. Online courses and degrees are available right now at a burgeoning number of universities in America, including New York's New School for Social Research, Duke, Stanford, Pepperdine and Cal State Dominguez Hills. The for-profit University of Phoenix has already issued 1,000 exclusively online degrees and has 4,000 students enrolled in its virtual courses. Western Governor's University, established with private funds by the governors of 16 Western states (but not ours) and among whose purposes is to "expand the marketplace for instructional materials, courseware and instructional technology" (imagine that inscribed, in Latin, on the archway at your school's entrance), will soon be a stand-alone degree-granting cyberuniversity. In OC, the online revolution is still in its infancy, but as Ken Tangen, who heads the College of Lifelong Learning at Chapman University, says, "It doesn't take long to see that in the future, online education will take a prominent part in higher education." Chapman offered only a couple of online courses last spring, but this fall, it is offering an experimental online "miniseminar" that, by using advanced cable modems (courtesy of Cox Cable) and video-compression technology (courtesy of OC's Futurelink), will allow students to access TV-quality video lectures on their home-computer monitors. If the technology works out, Tangen sees Chapman widely expanding the use of such technology into other courses. Phil Nolan, who is [deep breath] associate executive vice-chancellor for Continuing Education and Extension at UC Irvine, explains, "In three to four years, online courses will be a major part of extension curriculum." Fullerton College plans to have as many as a dozen online courses up and running by next spring. Cal State Fullerton and other local campuses have run courses online and plan to widen their use in the near future. The baby steps the county's campuses are taking toward online education are linked to, and dependent on, wider systemic developments that are electronically webbing together the state's schools. The California Research and Education Network will soon whiz information through a network of California universities at speeds 100 times faster than the Internet. The 4CNet Program will hardwire all of California's 106 community college and 22 California State University (CSUs) campuses with high-speed data lines. The state's community colleges are negotiating large-scale purchase agreements with IBM, NETg, Sun Microsystems, Office Depot and Cisco Systems to provide the community colleges with the hardware and software to widen the scope of online courses. While it doesn't offer degrees itself, California Virtual University, established in January by Governor Pete Wilson, serves as a sort of online clearinghouse for students who want to take distance courses from 95 participating UCs, CSUs, community colleges and private universities. Finally, until May, the CSU system had an initiative on the table called the California Educational Technology Initiative (CETI). The deal, which proposed a corporate partnership among Microsoft, GTE, Fujitsu, Hughes Electronics and the CSU, would have provided more than $300 million in telecommunications technology (mainly fiber-optic cable) to the CSU-a technological upgrade that would have made the campuses extremely online-friendly-in exchange for 10-year exclusive vendor agreements (for more infrastructure, PCs, software, etc.) worth around $5 billion. Former CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz and others were very high on CETI, but the initiative fell apart in May when faculty and student groups raised disturbing questions about how CETI would affect student learning and academic freedom.The biggest question that needs raising, of course, is "Why?" Why the headlong expensive rush to online education? Why the willingness of our universities to jump in bed with corporations eager to exploit what they're unapologetically calling "the education market." It would be nice if the answer was that colleges and universities were trying to save students from the hell of commuting, or that (sincerely interested in their students' welfare) they believed newfangled instructional technology would really educate people better. While there's plenty of hysterical propaganda out there about the wonders of educational technology (see Lewis Perelman's School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education) and plenty of hairsplitting from administrators about the value of online courses ("Excellent online courses and excellent traditional courses are differently excellent," Nolan said), it turns out that the "why" question is awfully complicated. Inevitably and depressingly, as one Cal State Fullerton professor put it, "It all comes down to money." Which makes it simple and complicated at the same time.THE RISE AND FALL OF THE MASTER PLANA little history is in order. Mass higher education in America is a post-World War II phenomenon. Before 1945, a college education was something most people either didn't need or couldn't afford. But the war's aftermath introduced both astonishing prosperity and the future-shock/information/postindustrial age, and a university education soon came to seem one of the main props holding up the new middle class's notion of the American Dream. Helping out was the GI Bill, which offered free college educations to millions of veterans, huge federal and state commitments to need-based scholarships, and a federal land-grant policy that made it possible for the states to build their own systems of higher education. Finances got so rosy in California that Governor Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown introduced California's Master Plan for higher education in 1960, which guaranteed-tuition-free!-a place at a UC campus for any high school graduate in the top 12 percent of his or her class, a place at a CSU campus for anyone in the top one-third, and a place at a community college for everyone else. Though "educational fees" and the like crept into college costs through the '60s and '70s, it was still possible as late as 1975 to get a full four years' worth of education at UC Irvine for around $7,000, a bachelor's degree at CSUF for around $4,000, and an associate's degree at Fullerton College for practically nothing. (Private colleges were affordable then, too. With the help of scholarships, my father-an electrician at General Motors-put me and my two brothers through Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College and Loyola Marymount in the late 1970s. And we lived on-campus.)This all began to collapse in 1978, when Proposition 13 undermined the tax base necessary to fund the Master Plan, followed by the Reagan Chill, which stuffed the American psyche so full of outmoded myths of self-reliance and government venality that the educational subsidies provided by the state began to be portrayed as government "handouts." Also, as historian David Noble points out in his influential article "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," in 1980 a little-publicized "reform of the patent law . . . for the first time gave the universities automatic ownership of patents resulting from federal government grants." This means that financially strapped universities essentially found themselves patent-holding companies, which led to "wholesale reallocation of university resources toward its research function at the expense of its [teaching] function." Tuition and fees skyrocketed to pay for all the new research that universities hoped to patent and profit from, while concern and support for teaching correspondingly dropped. This led in turn to the situation we have now at places like UCI, where freshmen and sophomores are routinely taught by graduate students and low-paid instructors, and tenured professors teach one or two classes per quarter, often to small groups of graduate students. Today, the state's Master Plan is a joke, and the commitment to affordable higher education for everyone is as quaint a relic as dormitory curfews.In an age of 350-student lecture halls, slashed course offerings that make it virtually impossible to graduate in four years, and tuition rates that make it necessary for many students to work 30 hours per week, it's no wonder that some students, faculty and administrators see online courses as a convenience rather than an affront. But virtual courses are just another way-and after the initial investment, probably a much cheaper way-for universities that increasingly see themselves as "efficient information-delivery systems" to deliver product to the consumer-um, student. Online course offerings, taught "remotely," are just the latest way for the educational system to push away students they've been pushing away since 1978. THE DOUBLE TIDAL WAVEOn the other hand: What the hell are universities supposed to do? When you talk to faculty and administrators who are responsible for, even excited about, incorporating online courses into the curriculum, you realize that most of them are decent people doing their best not to be swallowed up by daunting demographic, economic and bureaucratic pressures. (Though, as one CSUF professor put it, "The higher up in the food chain, the more remote administrators are from the needs of students.") For every well-meaning administrator, like Fullerton College's dean of Academic Services, Susan Clifford (who is "very excited by the possibilities" of online education), or for every apologist who will answer one's objections to the facelessness and remoteness of online courses by remarking that, hey, most students are bored by their classes and don't participate anyway, there are others like UCI political science professor and OC Weekly columnist Mark Petracca who say that an online course is "not a substitute. And we shouldn't pretend that it's the same thing as a traditional classroom course. There's a qualitative difference between virtual and classroom learning." Nonetheless, it's poised to become a substitute for two overwhelming reasons.The first is called Tidal Wave II, or the Echo Boom generation. This generation-born between 1977 and 1994, much larger than Generation X and almost as big as the Baby Boomers, who are their parents-is banging at the doors of our nation's colleges, and to put it bluntly, there isn't enough room for them. In California alone, Tidal Wave II will bring about 350,000 additional students into the state's colleges and universities. To serve them all, we'd have to build 10 new campuses the size of UCLA, which we Californians, running through our list of priorities, have decided we're not about to do. (Prisons, though-prisons we will build.) This bulge in student demand is exacerbated by another population of students clamoring for entrance to the Ivory Tower: adults returning to school for continuing education. These "non-traditional students" are coming back to school either because they've been downsized out of jobs in a turbulent economy and need new careers or because the careers they have require frequent updating of their skills. Together, the Echo Boomer and the Non-Traditional Student will put an unprecedented strain on our educational institutions, and a great number of them will be diverted into online courses. As CSUF history professor Nancy Fitch puts it, administrators are "working on economic models to prove the benefits of their argument that online courses are the solution to the Tidal Wave II problem." The second phenomenon pressuring us toward virtual education is another tidal wave, caused by what Petracca calls "society's infatuation with technology." There's something "inexorable" about education's embrace of virtual-learning technology, he says: "In 20 years, entire universities will be set up like this"-like virtual universities, that is-even though studies on the quality of online learning are at best inconclusive. Orange Coast College history professor Ann Wynne points out that "the technology available today is nowhere near ready to adequately teach most courses, particularly to freshmen who already are crippled by inadequate preparation in reading and math." Fitch is equally worried about the propaganda surrounding technology as a cure-all for higher education's troubles, saying, "Distance learning will damage instruction, especially if it is implemented in the kind of mindless way administrators talk about it." What's making administrators (mostly, again, the higher ones, the remote number crunchers in Sacramento or at the CSU chancellor's office in Long Beach) so mindless? Panic, probably, but possibly something else-something David Noble calls "the religion of technology." In his recent book by that name, Noble argues that "we routinely expect far more from [technology] than mere convenience, comfort or even survival. We demand deliverance. This is apparent in our virtual obsession with technological development, in our extravagant anticipations of every new technical advance . . . and most important, in our utter inability to think and act rationally about this presumably most rational of human endeavors." "Technology," he goes on, has "come to be identified with transcendence, implicated as never before in the Christian idea of redemption." We see evidence of this everywhere, of course, from IBM's and Microsoft's almost mystical marketing campaigns, to Perelman's delusory School's Out, to a prescient little novel by Thomas Pynchon called Gravity's Rainbow. If the California education establishment doesn't exactly see online education as the Savior, its members certainly genuflect to it like crazy, hoping it will pull off a miracle.FULL DISCLOSUREHere's a list of the communications technology I used to research and write this article: a Panasonic Sound Changer Plus Cordless Telephone; other people's voice mail-system models unknown; a GE Beeperless Remote Automatic Telephone Answering Machine; a Xerox 7033 fax machine from the local Mailboxes Etc.; a Macintosh SE Computer using (prelapsarian) Word 3.0 software; an Inca 320 Computer (with Intel Pentium Processor) using Windows 95 software, with e-mail and access to the Internet supplied through America Online; Newsbank research databank providing text-only copies of the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register articles from 1996 to the present, accessed through a CompuAdd computer at the very friendly Irvine public library; hard copies of the LA Times delivered to my door and, once, a copy of The Orange County Register someone left behind at a McDonald's; books; live, face-to-face, multisensory, interactive conversation with human beings; endlessly looped, highly inefficient, electrochemical cogitation with my own self.GEEK TRAGEDYThere's no need-no justification, obviously-for me to get all Luddite about this. There are certain things that technology can help educators and students do. Petracca makes a good case that when a professor teaching a traditional course sets up her or his own Web site, complete with hyperlinks to relevant Internet sites, additional and downloadable reading material, copies of handouts and syllabuses, etc., this can be both an enhancement of the classroom experience and a timesaver for everybody. The same goes for the use of e-mail. (I'm a professor, and when I gave out my home e-mail address to my students for the first time last year, it turned out fine: some otherwise shy students felt comfortable communicating that way, and I got a number of interesting correspondences going.) Other forms of distance learning, like teleconferencing via closed-circuit TV, can also be useful.And online courses themselves aren't necessarily bad-for some students and in some situations. As Tangen says, online courses "make the classroom a global place" that is accessible to anyone who owns and knows how to operate a computer. If you live in a remote area, if you have heavy family or work commitments, or if you're disabled, some online coursework may help you toward your degree. But let's not kid ourselves: the drawbacks are glaring. If you're not already literate-and I don't mean computer-literate, but literate-literate, as in knowing how to read and write-you're going to have a tough time using online courses. (And study after study, not to mention my own personal experience, cast great doubt on college freshman having these rudimentary skills.) If you're not already motivated, you're not likely to make it through an online course. (Terri Hedegaard, who helps direct the University of Phoenix's distance-education program, admits that "distance learners have a very high attrition rate," especially younger students. She adds, "I wouldn't want my 18-year-old daughter in these courses.") And if you care about the other vital benefits of college-things like, I don't know, inventing a new, more liberated, post-high school self; or making lasting friendships with people with similar capacities and interests; or meeting scholars who can serve as intellectual role models-then virtual learning begins to seem like one pale imitation of the real thing. Plus, the whole trend toward online learning is dangerous for three reasons I'll cite here and for the many more I've been implying all the way through this.One, the corporate partnerships established to help fund online-course expansion are potentially ruinous. (Remember, public universities are turning to the private sector because the state-i.e. the public, i.e. us-won't support university expansions through tax revenues.) CSU's CETI plan fell apart for many reasons, but among the most resonant was because, as the Register put it in January, one of the stipulations of the agreement was that "the corporations would be allowed to advertise over the university network, giving them a captive audience of students and professors who are using the computer for academic purposes." Which means, as one slippery slope slides toward another, that in the future, you could be registering for classes called Dow Chemistry 101. Corporate sponsorship is also insidious because, as Noble tells us in "Digital Diploma Mills," the corporations are very serious about the idea of packaging online courses taught at colleges where they supply the hardware and software and then selling them via the Internet for profit. They're looking not only to make professors superfluous but also to commodify and automate the educational process.Two, the more colleges and universities commit themselves to an online future, the more they're committing America to a two-tiered, class-based educational system. As Fitch puts it, "My fear is that students who have the money and resources to get into the UCs and private universities will continue to receive excellent educations and become the leaders of tomorrow, whereas those without economic resources will be relegated to the substandard online education planned by CSU administrators." Of course, America already has a class-based educational system (in which the rich go to prestigious private colleges and the rest go to huge 30,000-student campuses), but at the moment, places like the CSUs aren't systemically inferior as far as a student's learning experience goes-dedicated teachers at CSUs often provide much richer learning environments than research-harried, tenure-crazed professors at Princeton. But if the 30,000-student campuses capitulate to the online option, they will become systemically inferior: for all the gussied-up high-tech dressing, they'll be 21st century correspondence schools.Finally, the medium is the message. The more higher education becomes remote and virtual, the more difficult it will be for educators, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, to meaningfully convey one of the primary facts of the postindustrial era: the fact that we already live our lives among simulacra, among a skein of signs and corporate images divorced from nature, the human voice and a mortal, beating heart. Studying the 21st century's increasing remoteness and virtuality from within an educational structure that is itself remote and virtual will become an exercise in snide irony or helpless defeatism. I don't see any way around it: the idea that a virtual education is a viable alternative to traditional, classroom-based education makes about as much sense as the idea that virtual sex is as good as real sex. If education is the transmission and critique of a cultural heritage, it works best-and in some essential way, only works-when live, breathing humans are involved. I'll leave you with an example. When I was at Claremont McKenna College in 1979, I took an amazing seminar on the Nazi Holocaust from John Roth, who was honored as America's Professor of the Year a few years ago. In that course, we read the soul-chilling works of Holocaust survivors and watched horrific films of Nazi exterminations, both of which we could have done online. But there was something about walking into that seminar room each week that was electrifying because-I didn't know it then, but I know it now-studying the Holocaust was affecting us physically. The Holocaust began to show in our slouches, in our gestures, in a prolonged hush or a sudden harshness of speech, in the way we began to carry the Holocaust around with us on our persons, as a vital burned-in inscription. We were privileged to take our cues from Roth, who worked out his thoughts right there in front of us, and whose solid crewcutted physical presence was itself an emblem of a human being honestly and compassionately confronting horror. Not only his words, but also his presence taught us, as much as did his words, how to take a complex, terrible idea in. In that classroom, I learned a little about how culture and history get passed down from professor and received by student, and I learned that education is something that you do with your whole self, that you inhabit with your whole body.Research assistance by Gina Valentino.

 
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