The old joke told among disgruntled faculty that teaching would be an excellent profession if it were not for students has actually become a reality. On my campus this summer, you will be more likely to run into administrators and their assistants than a student or a member of the faculty. This is not to say there will not be students registered for classes this summer, but it is to say that there will be very few faculty and students attending classes at the University of Nebraska at Kearney this summer.
Our summer school classes have gone underground: subject matters will course through a computer cable system running out of the basements of buildings, through the main frame, and on into cyberspace, from the hinterlands of central Nebraska to students in almost every state.
The new, techno-professor no longer needs a classroom, an office, a desk, or a chair from which to log-on to his class of cyberspace students, but rather the surrounds of a coffee shop in Sausalito, a sailboat on the Aegean, or simply his bedroom in Cozad, Nebraska. The professor remains faceless. A techno-teacher does not have any more personal contact with students than a television has as it babysits. He does not hear the hesitation in a voice, the perplexity at a question, or know whether a student is on time or tardy, comely or scruffy, bright-eyed or sleepy-headed, attentive or fidgety, well-prepared or on the fly.
The techno-teacher does not make eye contact with students when he looks up after reading a passage from Republic or Hamlet to ask what a student thinks about the place of justice in the soul or "Whether tis' nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune . . ." both of which could spontaneously erupt into a classroom discussion that lasts well beyond the allotted hour.
Being a professor has always encompassed the parental act of cultivating young minds which have arrived half-formed, full of blank spaces, misconceptions, and generalizations, and often completely ignorant of the subject being taught. Socrates thought of himself as a midwife who assisted a student in developing his thinking through a dialectical discussion focused on the examination of ideas at the very moment in which he was talking with this student. By unpacking allegories, analogies, metaphors, and similes, the teacher helps the student give birth to his own intellectual discoveries, all in hopes that this student will be able to govern his own soul in a moral and thoughtful manner.
Gilbert Highet, in The Art of Good Teaching, has Socrates in mind when writing of the rewards of being present at the birth of a student's thoughtfulness:
You do not merely insert a lot of facts, if you teach them properly. It is not like injecting 500 cc. of serum, or administering a year's dose of vitamins. You take the living mind, and mold it. It resists sometimes. It may lie passive and apparently refuse to accept any imprint. Sometimes it takes the mold too easily, and then seems to melt again and become featureless. But often it comes into firmer shape as you work, and gives you the incomparable happiness of helping to create a human being. To teach a boy the difference between truth and lies in print, to start him thinking about the meaning of poetry or patriotism, to hear him hammering back at you with the facts and arguments you have helped him to find, sharpened by himself and fitted to his own powers, gives the sort of satisfaction that an artist has when he makes a picture out of a blank canvas and chemical colorings, or a doctor when he hears a sick pulse pick up and carry the energies of new life under his hands.
In the cyber-classroom, a teacher will not hear a pulse pick up and carry the energies of new life in an active mind. He is severed from his students and is more akin to an encyclopedia dispensing factual information from a television screen than a parent looking the youth in the eye while offering a helping hand.
Undoubtedly, a computer is a research tool and an asset to those who are motivated to study. However, there is a difference between pupils and students; the former are under the tutelage or direction of someone who knows what the pupil, for his own good, ought to know and to learn; the latter has matured to the point at which his own curiosity or ambition permits him to follow his inclinations and passionately pursue knowledge that is worth knowing for his and the common good.
The current fad of removing the student from the classroom is advertised as being "convenient," for the student will no longer have to attend campus, thereby saving gas money and dorm fees; can work at his own speed, enabling him to maintain a part or full time job; can participate in the on-line campus "conversation" by reading the "postings" on the classroom "discussion board" and responding -- a minimum of three times a week -- which is supposed to duplicate the benefits of being actively engaged in a class discussion.
Being a student has never been nor should ever be convenient. It is not easy to be engaged in thoroughly reading ten pages of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as preparation for classroom discussion, to sit up straight and pay attention (three times a week for sixteen weeks), to write essay exams in one hour, and to write and rewrite papers on the virtues and vices of each of the brothers Karamazov by defending one's analysis to both teacher and classmates.
A colleague recently commented that his students asked far more questions and had lengthier online discussions than they ever did in class. As anyone who enjoys singing in the shower or dancing before a mirror could explain, it is easy to perform in the anonymity of privacy. There is safety in isolation, the refuge of a clam.
Why would a teacher ever want to be cut off from his students? Why would a parent not want to see his children?
Imagine being asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student you have never spoken with or seen, but with whom you had a web relationship by dropping into, deus ex machina, his on-line journaling's to scan the entries which satisfied the three required weekly writing assignments, or by clicking down to check out his participation in a cyber-space class discussion for which the student can log-in any time, day or night.
In all of this, an anecdote from a former student, doing his student teaching in a local high school English class, serves to show the difference between pupils and students. He was standing in the hall with the English teacher to whom he had been assigned, observing a group of juniors and seniors from the doorway as they took an on-line college English literature class. The students were riveted to their personal laptop screens which were blocked from the teacher's view. After objectively observing the students for some time and being amazed by the interest of the students in their web-based literature class, he asked the teacher what he should do. The teacher suggested he enter the class to observe the lesson being taught by the on-line university professor. So, he did, and found, to his dismay, the boys were on porn sites and the girls were shopping. He went back into the hall and told the teacher, who replied, "I know, there isn't anything I can do with them." So what was happening in the professor's mind at the other end of this course being taught from the university campus?
I spoke with another student over a cup of coffee who told me he gave his five required speeches for his on-line university Speech 100 class in one afternoon sitting before the web cam on his computer. He clicked the speeches to his teacher and received an "A" for the class. "No audience, no pressure: what a breeze." He also took an on-line biology course, with which he struggled, saying that he basically had to teach himself, and he did not do very well.
I turned from talking with him to a colleague who told me of a former faculty member who is currently teaching twenty-seven on-line English courses from seven different universities this semester. I quickly calculated four thousand dollars a class times two semesters at this load. You do the math. Practical, optimal or beneficial? And for whom?
I also have a friend who took Ethics online, satisfying class requirements by taking a multiple choice exam on Aristotle, Kant, and J. S. Mill. Easy for both her and her teacher.
Imagine separating coaches from their players, who at their convenience logged-on to a series of organized performance and conditioning drills. Then think of the music student recording a flugelhorn lesson in the privacy of his bedroom for a teacher who listens and comments at her convenience.
This summer members of our faculty will teach hundreds of students who will not set foot on campus. What a savings: no desks to straighten, boards to erase, classrooms to clean. However, while the classroom lights may be turned off, the building's air conditioning must be left on so the computerized "smart classroom" equipment will not be damaged by the heat.
In fact, we now have a new College of Education building which houses its entire faculty, who had previously been scattered throughout the campus. However, this summer the entire College of Education graduate program is offered on-line, and the campus will no longer see elementary and secondary school teachers bustling about campus. The building, though, will remain open for a few administrators, and their staff, and to ensure the equipment is air-conditioned.
The movers and shakers of distance education effervescently applaud UNK's move to a scaled-down version of the University of Phoenix -- the one university in America that has a football stadium without a campus.
The reason for our distance education enthusiasm is that it keeps our campus enrollment from declining. Given that the high school population of central Nebraska has dried up with the loss of the family farm to agri-business, the President of the University's -- and thus this campus chancellor's -- focus in higher education is a job preparation program in hopes of stopping the brain drain by building "technology to draw business to Nebraska." Last week President Miliken was advocating "entrepreneurship" to our students who should be prepared to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Meanwhile, back at the campus, we are offering very few reasons to come to Kearney because the courses are not here. Soon, no doubt, we will be accepting credits from the likes of the University of Phoenix and students will graduate with a patchwork of courses from a variety of universities. Some entrepreneurship.
Be this as it may, meditations on the computer's force in our lives today, what it is used for, what it stands for -- the computer as weapon, as movie theater, as boom-box, as play-station, as face-book, as porn shop, as shopping mall -- might lead us right into the heart of all contemporary problems: the demise of the family, the collapse of American public education into mediocrity, the growing brutality of entertainment, the demeaning of women into sex objects, the flight from reality into artificial fantasy created for a nation of spoiled children who are in peril of losing their imaginations to a screen to which their pupils are glued like deer in the headlights of on-coming cars.
In all of this I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan, who introduced the idea "the medium is the message" and created the term "global village" [global classroom?], who saw technology as an extension of the human body, a tool to facilitate labor. An "extension" occurs when someone uses something to extend the capacity of the human body and mind in a new way. A hoe is similar to an arm and a cupped hand. Only, as an extension, it is stronger in breaking crusted soil and clods. Microscopes and telescopes are extensions of the eyes used to enlarge images of minute objects as well as magnify distant objects. This is fine; the instrument as instrument is an inanimate object without motive, will, or responsibility.
McLuhan further noted, however, that every extension of technology has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. An example of an amputation would be the loss of the art of hoeing with the development of the roto-tiller and the loss of strong legs with the takeover of the automobile. The telephone extends the voice but amputates penmanship and the art of letter writing.
As McLuhan was deeply concerned with man's willful blindness to the perils of technology, he established four laws, framed as questions, by which to examine the modern instruments of technology.
The first of these questions is "What does the technology extend?" In the case of on-line college classes, it extends the teacher into cyberspace. The second question is "What does it make obsolete?" The on-line college class makes a college campus obsolete as the library, offices for faculty, and classrooms are no longer necessary. In fact, the teachers' lectures can be recorded, thereby making the teachers obsolete. The third question is "What does it retrieve?" It supports the idea that every child in America has a natural right to an affordable higher education. The fourth question is "What does technology revert into if it is overextended?" The overextended on-line student is driven into solitude where he is fixed to a hand-held or computer screen where he has an artificial interactive relationship with his teachers and classmates. This is a place where more and more teachers desire to spend their hours as they are freed from the classroom. In effect, the student is a faceless spectator before his teachers in a virtual reality which he tunes into, or not, at his convenience.
Have we have forsaken our children? *
"A good moral character is the first essential in a man." --George Washington