Many years ago, when I first began working with faculty, helping them to navigate the waters of distance education, one of the primary fears I dealt with had to do with the idea that, if they did the hard work of creating online courses, faculty would eventually be supplanted by their own creations.
In response, I would challenge them by suggesting that if all of what they brought to the classroom – all of their teaching magic – could be recorded and bottled and packaged and put online, then they probably needed to find another profession, or at the very least step up their game. Those words sound harsh to my ears now, but they provided some perspective, and seemed to soothe, or at least calm those fearful faculty. Surely teaching and learning, online or in the classroom, is more than just an act of content? As a wise faculty colleague once told me: “If you want to cover content, find a tarp.”
A fellow faculty member approached me recently, and asked if he ought to be looking for something else to do with his life. He had read and seen and heard about MOOCs – and who among us hasn’t? – and had concluded that perhaps education as we know it, as we practice it, is on the way out, for better or for worse. He imagined a situation in which our Board of Trustees, or indeed the California Community College System as a whole begins to ask the question of why, when there are lots of open courses to choose from, designed and “taught” by the best and brightest faculty from the most prestigious institutions, should so many of those same courses be offered at individual colleges? In the resource-constrained environment in which we find ourselves, shouldn’t we just partner with one of the MOOC providers, license their courses, and offer credit for them as other institutions have done? He ruminated on his role as a faculty member, as a scholar, as a teacher, and concluded that it was quite possible that in the near future, he would be relegated to the role of a reader or test proctor, an overqualified TA. Noble endeavors all, but not what he signed up for.
I suspect that these kinds of discussions (or at least thoughts) are happening all over the place, among educators and legislators and capitalists and taxpayers and administrators and faculty. I’m not going to bash MOOCs, as seems to be the fashion these days. I’ve come to understand that Ed Techs (myself included, I suppose) are in some ways like music snobs. When some technology becomes mainstream – watered-down, corrupted by capitalism and cheapened by profiteers, sullied and simplified and soundbitten – we decry its popularity and head for the exits.
In any case, I began to run the thought experiment of how exactly a MOOC licensing arrangement would play out at my college. I imagine that to those focused on efficiency, MOOCs have a sort of fast food appeal. How better to serve thousands cheaply, quickly, and easily? At the shallow level of the soundbite, such a partnership appears the ideal solution…
Setting aside the long-term health effects of a fast food diet, the reality of such an implementation would necessarily (at least within the California Community College System and given current law) pivot on the construct of “regular effective contact” as detailed in California’s Title 5. To whit:
55204. Instructor Contact.
In addition to the requirements of section 55002 and any locally established requirements applicable to all courses, district governing boards shall ensure that:(a) Any portion of a course conducted through distance education includes regular effective contact between instructor and students, through group or individual meetings, orientation and review sessions, supplemental seminar or study sessions, field trips, library workshops, telephone contact, correspondence, voice mail, e-mail, or other activities. Regular effective contact is an academic and professional matter pursuant to sections 53200 et seq.
Faculty at community colleges across the state have wrestled with this construct since the dawn of distance education, attempting to define and quantify and qualify “regular effective contact.” Setting aside the quantification – how much? how often? – it occurs to me that this regular effective contact is perhaps the best part of teaching, those relationships, the individual and collective aha! moments, the spaces in between, the connective tissue, the scaffolding.
I’ve yet to see a technology that is able to bottle teaching magic. For now, or until such time as legislators change the law in the interest of efficiency, I hold on to the hope that this “regular effective contact” will accompany and keep honest any attempt to create drive-through solutions for undergraduate bottleneck course problems.