On Friday I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed called The End of the University?, written by Louis Betty. Mr Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. In this article he gives some reasons as to why people (such as myself) are wrong in predicting the demise of higher education. Fair enough. I give Mr Betty major credit for writing an opinion piece like this and exposing himself to contrary views. I did however disagree with his article and would like to run through why in this post.
First, it is clear in the article that Mr Betty likes his job and takes pride in it. In the first part of his article he establishes himself as a professor in the traditional mold. He emphasizes his students have to come to class, read French classics and write a lot. I don’t believe he has any experience with online learning. Despite this, he proceeds to give reasons why online learning won’t change anything. Ok, let’s look at his argument.
One of the first things he talks about is something he terms virtualization. While he doesn’t define this term, I believe he is referring to replacing face to face interaction with online (virtual) interaction. He write this:
“…what just about everyone prophesying the eclipse of face-to-face interaction in a virtual world forgets — is that human beings are, above all else, bodies, and that to lead full, happy, and meaningful lives, we need other bodies.”
This is quite a definitive statement and to his credit he offered three points to back it up.
- His first point is to discuss an article written in the 1950s where some futurists thought that technology would change humans into being with large heads with small appendages. We wouldn’t cook anymore, just pop a few pills to get nutrients. The big head thing is obviously talking about evolution which takes hundreds of thousands of years so it’s way, way too early to see if the futurists were right. But what about the obesity epidemic which is caused by the nexus of high carb foods and lack of physical activity caused by technology? But forget that because his whole point is fallacious. Just because some people in the 1950s were incorrect about something, how does that in any way mean that futurists are incorrect about things today? That’s like saying if you flip a coin and it comes up heads, it will then always come up heads.
- His second point is that when movies were invented, some people predicted the death of live theater. Obviously live theater has not died off. In 2010, total US attendance at live events (including concerts) was 45 Million people (source). However, also in 2010 total US attendance in movie theaters was 1.3 Billion (source). So no, live theater has not been wiped out but it is almost a non entity in delivery of entertainment in the US compared to movies. Likewise, I don’t think on campus colleges will be wiped out, but their share of the higher ed market will be dwarfed by online learning. Campus based colleges will be very expensive and therefore very exclusive (like live theater). Online will cater to everyone else.
- His third “myth” is that social media is replacing face to face interactions. The first piece of evidence is a personal anecdote about college kids across the lake from him making noise showing how people are still social face to face. Anecdotes can be suggestive but are never conclusive so I don’t think this proves anything. If you want a different example, go to any place where people meet. Look around at how many people (especially young people) are on their phones. There are people all around them and yet they would rather spend that time with their “virtual” friends. What Mr Betty is missing is that social media is not replacing physical contacts, it is creating connections that would not have existed in the first place. My Grandparents lived in England so when I was born they got a letter and a few photographs. When my first child is born in the next few weeks, his grandparents will get lots of pics, videos and live video chats. Yes this social media will enhance the eventual physical contact but it has value in itself. It is perfectly possible to have a social relationship with somebody online and never meet them live. That doesn’t make it worthless.
Mr Betty then launches into his next defense of face to face education which is, to him “so elementary that the objection supporting it is almost hard to take seriously.” I am very glad that Mr Betty has deigned to bless us with his wisdom. (Just as a side note, I remember teachers in college like Mr Betty who clearly thought they were better than their students. Their classes were not enjoyable and I avoided face to face meetings with them.) I feel intellectual discourse is best facilitated when you treat the other side with respect and not as idiots but I digress.
I’ll just quote him here so you get the full effect.
“The truth is that education is not simply the conveying of information. In fact, it is probably only marginally that. How many people remember most of what they learned in college? Only very few, I would guess. The benefit of a classroom education is that it keeps students under a certain amount of mental pressure, forces them to think on the spot, and obliges them to explain themselves to other people who are physically present. Information is afoot in these interactions, but so are wisdom, passion, empathy, and a whole host of other viscera that only an embodied teacher or student can properly convey.”
There are plenty of online tools that let all the participants be present in a virtual room. They can talk to each other and the teacher. Even so, the online medium is used most effectively when the student has to present a project or video explaining a topic to their peers asynchronously. It lets them reflect on a topic and do deeper thinking. I did my best work when I knew everyone would see it, not just the teacher. In contrast, when you are called on by the physically present teacher in the face to face class, you typically are fearful or at least apprehensive. You try to tell the teacher the correct answer and if you get it wrong or don’t know you are humiliated in front of your peers. You then spend the next 20 minutes in your shell trying not to get called on again. This is what many students experience in classrooms. Fear is not the best mindset for learning especially when you have a bully for a teacher trying to mold your mind.
Mr Betty then veers off into politics which I view as a red herring. Nobody is passing laws to destroy higher education. The survival of in person college will be dictated by one thing; if students keep believing that going into massive debt is the best way to thrive in their lives. That isn’t a political choice, it’s an economic one.
As the pièce de résistance (<—- some French I just learned via Google!) Mr Betty comes up with his master explanation to explain the mental deficiency of his opponents. It’s called Appleism! Mind you this isn’t just his own theory, it’s apparently a doctrine which he explains thusly.
“Innocent in principle but nefarious in practice, the doctrine of Appleism holds that increases in technological capability are synonymous with increases in human happiness.”
First of all, I don’t know of anyone who believes this. Using an absolute like that is a strawman argument. However, if you look at human history, technology from the wheel all the way to the iPhone has lead to a hugely increased standard of living around the world. The virtualization of higher education will dramatically lower the cost, which will make it much more available to the masses. Like movies, it won’t completely replace face to face instruction but it will dwarf it in terms of societal impact. This will however mean you need many fewer assistant French professors, which I believe is the real motivation in Mr Betty’s impassioned, fact free, and misguided article.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
– Upton Sinclair