Until the twentieth century, organized distance education was primarily vocational in focus, with courses in shorthand, stenography, mine safety, and home economics being prominent. In the late nineteenth century, a few exceptions emerged (often targeting less privileged groups such as women), but the vocational focus continued to dominate. With technology for mass communication still relatively limited, the target audience for distance education came from the lower classes; the wealthy still preferred to have their learning on campus, and the lower classes lacked the leisure to pursue the liberal arts.
Distance education, while having the potential to be liberatory (as implied by Charlotte Perkins Gilman having been a student of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home), has not commonly been used in that way. And today? With more universities offering online coursework, a greater number of liberal arts courses are offered, and yet universities (generally speaking) are increasingly focused on job-oriented skills. Margaret Atwood‘s vision in Oryx and Crake of a run-down liberal arts college replacing Ars Longa Vita Brevis with the motto “Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills” seems wrong only in that schools are increasingly upgrading their facilities to appeal to wealthier students. Even if such projects contribute only minimally to tuition upgrades, they speak loudly about whom residential higher education is meant for. Meanwhile, MOOC-mania has quickly led to the term being used to describe only the corporate xMOOCs, focused on transmitting existing knowledge rather than creating it through collaboration and co-learning. And the Open University is closing down regional centers.
My greatest fear with online education is that it will be used to reify class divisions in education: that the poor will take courses online to prepare them to fight each other for contract work and the wealthy will learn critical thinking and at least some semblance of art in lush campus setting with climbing walls and jacuzzis. This is not a problem inherent to digital teaching and learning. Rather, the LMS and other online tools make relatively cheap delivery tools for a kind of education that is increasingly being assigned to the non-elite student.
I want to use these tools to subvert socioeconomic division, to liberate, to teach and co-think.
Note: This post was written as a reflection for a course in the Professional Certificate in Online Education program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- ‘Machine Teaching’ Is Seen as Way to Develop Personalized Curricula (chronicle.com)
- Introducing the Digital Pedagogy Lab (chronicle.com)