Posted by: crudbasher | August 25, 2011

A Lesson From Gandhi for Traditional Higher Education

This article is really cool, not just because it talks about alternatives to traditional higher education models, but also because of the comments.

This is the New York Times so I expect a more elitist, liberal view of things. Fair enough. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ll leave off the names and just refer to them as comment numbers.

Comment #1: The Traditionalist Argument

The whole point of a college education is to interact with real people (including the course instructor). Online education takes the social variable out of the mix of an increasingly technologically driven society. I teach college courses and can’t begin to imagine conducting those classes solely on the basis of a computer link.

Me: If the point of a college education is to interact with real people just go to the mall, it’s cheaper.

Comment #4: The Academic Argument

I didn’t get my PhD in a top program so I could teach to a faceless computer or be told what to teach at a for-profit college and, thus, conspire to give people quickie degrees intended to fool them and prospective employers. Part of getting a PhD at a reputable institution is learning how to adhere to a code of ethics and values intended to benefit both the future of scholarship and the students in one’s class.

Me: People like this are going to have a real hard time adjusting their world view when students stop showing up and take cheaper alternatives.

Comment #6: The “Let Them Eat Cake!” Argument

Traditional higher education was never meant for the masses! Folks who must earn a living MUST acquire relevant knowledge and skills with rifle shot accuracy.

Me: Everyone needs more learning. If traditional learning can’t do it, then alternative will emerge.

Comment #10: Wise Businessman Argument

I would not hire anyone with an on-line degree…..

Me: What if they are the best person for the job?

Comment #11: The Price = Quality Argument

$216 for THREE classes? How much feedback could one possibly receive in such cheaply priced offerings?

Me: So paying $3,000 for one class taught by a grad student in a classroom of 300 people is better?

Comment #15: Our Better Nature Argument

Some things just should not be done for profit, they must be done for the good of our society. I must confess that I would feel a lot better about online education if it were not a for-profit venture, enriching shareholders at the possible expense of their students.

Me: For profit schools are great things because they are accountable. A for profit school lives and dies by keeping their students happy. Part of that happiness is the kind of jobs the students get afterwards. Social Media is the best feedback loop in history.

(cc) mansionwb

To be fair, there were also some comments that defended the new models of higher education. As I read them all, I thought of something that Gandhi said:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Right now, alternative models of higher education learning are in step 2. That’s fine. Keep laughing…




  • Good overview of alternative higher ed models

    tags: education highered alternatives models nell

    • a host of new online enterprises are making earning a college degree cheaper, faster and flexible enough to take work experience into account. As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.
    • Ryan Yoder, 35, a computer programmer who had completed 72 credits at the University of South Florida years ago, signed up with an outfit called Straighterline, paid $216 to take two courses in accounting and one in business communication, and a month later transferred the credits to Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, which awarded him a bachelor’s degree in June.
    • most experts agree that given the exploding technologies, cuts to university budgets and the expanding universe of people expected to earn postsecondary degrees, there is no end in sight for newfangled programs preparing students for careers in high-demand areas like business, computer science, health care and criminal justice.
    • Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would “change dramatically” as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.

      “Instead of a full entree of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Mr. Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”

    • Anya Kamenetz, whose 2010 book, “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education,” tracks the new wave of Web-based education efforts, says the new institutions will only continue to improve and expand. “For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one,” she said. “For others, it will mean getting some kind of education, instead of nothing.”
    • The emerging menu of new offerings is startlingly varied, as are the institutions. One unaccredited nonprofit startup, University of the People, gives English-speaking high school graduates a chance to study business or computers free, with volunteer teachers. There are also budding joint ventures between brick-and-mortar campuses and online entities, like Ivy Bridge College — a collaboration between Tiffin University, a nonprofit school in Ohio, and Altius Education, a commercial business, offering two-year online degrees transferrable to dozens of partner four-year colleges. And there are grass-roots nonprofits like Peer 2 Peer University, where people start study groups on topics as diverse as JavaScript and Baroque art.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


  1. The point of comment #1 is about encounters with experts and with other learners in a setting conducive to spending time focused on an area of expertise, not just “interaction.” The commentator’s inability to imagine a good online course is simply a failure of imagination, of course. Yes, there are good things happening online. I teach online and sometimes it is great. But all the problems with online – the distractions, the bogus “multi-tasking,” the superficiality, the streamlining, the depersonalization and mediated nature, etc. are real problems in those “classrooms.”

    Comment #4 sounds elitist, but there is a point to those ethics and values. The commentator is dismayed that they will go by the wayside when everythign is only about money and jobs. Saying, “Well, that’s the way it is” doesn’t discredit or replace those ethics and values. Perhaps formal, tuition-paid education will soon no longer include those values. It will all be vocational training. Well, are we certain that that is a good thing? It might be great – a boon for culture and education. Or it might be a disaster. We should own the changes, take charge of them, not simply assent to what they decide at the Googleplex or in Washington.

    On comment #11 you offer a false dichotomy. The complaint is legitimate. You can’t offer a good education at the prices now being paid to adjuncts. We need alternatives. But horrific prices for mass lecture halls isn’t the only one.

    On comment #15 you are right about accountability. But the issue what they are accountable for or to. The for-profits are great at the customer service model. Students want a credential for a better job – and that’s what they get. But the clue in education is that it is a product where (1) the customer does not always know what is best and (2) it is almost universally recognized – although given less and less acknowledgement – that it doesn’t just include or lead to material rewards. That “part of the happiness” that is a job after graduation is just that – part of it. What about the rest? I think most of that “rest” should be offered in high school with more energy. But so much of high school is now about remedial skills that there probably isn’t much wiggle room there any more.

    On your final remarks – yes, alternative models are in step two. But the for-profit universities, particularly the all-online ones that are now going through falling enrollments, are only one such alternative. They too will make mistakes and have to re-learn.

    • Hey M,

      Brilliant points. When I write a post like this one, I tend to exaggerate and use a bit of hyperbole. Please forgive me. I believe that is a valid way of getting a conversation started and in this case I am very please you responded.

      In comment #1 I’m glad you recognized that the commenter didn’t know what they were talking about. I think a lot of people have an outdated view of what online education is all about. There are some awful classes certainly but I have taken some really good ones myself. Perhaps we can say that there are certain problems in a classroom, and there are different problems in an online setting? Neither one is perfect. Perhaps that is why Blended Learning is becoming more widespread? It’s the best of both.

      Comment #4 was certainly elitist. I have a problem with forcing the teacher’s ethics and values on students. I don’t have a problem with instructors giving their opinions but I think in too many cases the students are being punished for disagreeing. That isn’t a way to encourage critical thinking, it encourages conformity. I’m sure the teacher who wrote comment #4 would teach like that.

      Perhaps the big problem here is that it’s hard to get a well rounded education because it’s too expensive? Each class has to contribute to earnings or else the ROI isn’t worth it. Just an idea. 🙂

      For comment #11, why can’t you offer a good education at low cost? You asserted that but didn’t develop the reason why. I’m curious.

      In Comment #15 you spoke about the more noble ideas of education. We think of college as a place we go to better ourselves. In some cases that is true. I have no data on this, but I wonder for what reasons students attend college? I would bet for most of them it is to get a good paying job at the end wouldn’t you say? As I said, I can’t prove this. If that is the case though, is that premise still valid? In a lot of cases yes, but it’s certainly not a guaranteed as it used to be.

      I think in the end we have to answer a question. That question isn’t “Can going to a traditional 4 year school help me get a good job”. I don’t dispute that. The real question is: “Can I still get a good job after taking a much cheaper online school?”. In a growing number of cases the answer is yes. All it takes is one online school to get the right model and there will be a thousand others the next year.

      Fantastic conversation, I really enjoyed it and would be interested in any follow thoughts you have!

  2. I have a problem with forcing the teacher’s ethics and values on students. I don’t have a problem with instructors giving their opinions but I think in too many cases the students are being punished for disagreeing. That isn’t a way to encourage critical thinking, it encourages conformity.

    I wonder how often such “forcing” is really going on. While I can’t speak for the original commentator, my sense is that the “values and ethics” at issues are not political opinions, but the ethos of research and learning. In higher education, that is something like the Humboldt ideal of combining research with teaching. Teaching takes place when someone doing real research and knowledge creation is inviting students into that experience and interact. With purely vocational training, that may disappear. It also disappears when classes are centralized and standardized, when tests are administered and success gauged centrally. The encounter between personalities – the content expert and the learner – we also talked about here is connected here too, as is your concern with conformity. What better way to encourage conformity than standardized testing of standardized learning objectives taught by regimented “facilitators” in cookie-cutter courses? Some radical professor on his high horse with nutty ideas is far less dangerous – and far more interesting. The path to critical thinking is not paved with uniformly moulded bricks all made in the same factory.

    The large for-profit universities operating on the customer service model sell a credential for as little money as possible. The result is streamlining (standardization etc.) that sheds the variety, personality and creativity of education and results in the factory model, cookie-cutter problem. Do we as educators accept the loss that results? Maybe. It might not be all bad. But it is a loss.

    For comment #11, why can’t you offer a good education at low cost? You asserted that but didn’t develop the reason why. I’m curious.

    If we want the ideals I talk about above – the Humboldt ideal, personalized feedback, discussion, interaction – that isn’t free or low cost. You need a professional content expert, not a worker-bee “facilitator”. And you need time. Right now, I have to make a simple decision in my adjunct work: Do I really teach with thorough feedback and continuous interaction and occasionally do some research OR do I teach enough courses (or take on various side jobs) to live a normal, lower middle-class life? That is the core situation of non-tenured humanities PhD these days. And tenure is going away.

    In short, we can maybe offer a “good” education at low cost, but I submit it will be one of two variations:

    – It will be subsidized and hence not really “low cost”
    – or it will be “good” in ways that abandon those ideals. The first thing that comes to mind is that the result will be narrowly vocational (which again might be fine) or will be some form of “student-to-student” learning model or machine-to-student model, each of which implies problems that open up a whole new discussion.

    As for why students go to college, there are studies. The issue for me is to what extent we listen to those reasons. Yes, most – especially the non-traditional (older) students that I teach – want a credential for a better job or pay scale. Education should give them that. But education has always _forced_ students to _get_ more than that. That was part of the bargain. Maybe we need to abandon that. But maybe not.

    As to your final question – I agree with you. At the online school I teach for students really do learn things (provided they aren’t just paying a ghost writer to do all the assignments) and they deserve the better jobs they get. If it really is about jobs, then these schools are adaquate. They even go beyond into some of those “ideals” in many cases.

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