Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. In an email message on Sep. 2, he referred me to Kevin Carey’s College for $99 a Month: The Next Generation of Online Education Could Be Great for Students—and Catastrophic for Universities” (Washington Monthly, Sep./Oct. 2009). Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js


keller40Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 3 Sep. 2009, 4:00AM: This article engendered so many thoughts that I cannot begin to write them all. Note the unfair evaluation criteria; compare with online vs. traditonal A.P. science courses. The disruptive innovation thread is large. What if many StraighterLine clones sprung up if regulatory walls were lowered, and many had lower standards — just like today’s colleges. The social benefits to students of college have been ignored in the article. How much of the tutoring and even teaching will be outsourced offshore? Will the $99 per month be sustainable as a business model? StraighterLine only offers 11 courses now, all oriented to business students; when will they be able to offer degrees? Who will support research in renaissance french pottery <big grin> if universities have to downsize? Will future college professors be able to retire on the job until they really retire as some do today? The protesting professors clearly know on which side their bread is buttered and are reacting to a threat rather than proposing rational solutions to impending change. What will happen to low-enrollment courses; will they be aggregated across states or even nations to keep them viable? Who will teach a course that only provides a small slice of $99 per student? How large will the student load per instructor be? Is the ivory-tower model dying? How will drama and science be taught? For online courses, the major costs are the design of the course (amortizable) and the ongoing cost of the instructor. Interestingly, each corporate online provider must design courses anew. Smaller providers, such as small states, purchase the curricula and resell them packaged with one of their instructors.

And so it goes. This concept goes far beyond the use of “clickers” and “smart” boards in bringing technology to education.

The topic may be too large for us to cover, but if we don’t try, we won’t know for sure.


steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 3 Sep. 2009, 7:14AM: Harry refers to the often-cited “social benefits” of the walled university. Apparently something of educational importance happens when the the 300 students and the lecturer and the images on the screen are together in the lecture hall in real time. Or when the 30 students and the graduate student “discuss” the lecture in real time in a 600-square feet classroom.

Jerry FarberI wish someone in our group with institutional library privileges could get us two articles by Jerry Farber: “The Third Circle; On Education and Distance Learning” and “Teaching and Presence.”

Farber’s first circle is “measurable competence.” That’s what we get in all those studies that come out, it almost seems, every other day. Those “NSD” studies.

The second circle contains those competences that aren’t readily measurable.

And the third circle contains those “benefits” that Harry mentions: the profound educational benefits that Farber and so many other attribute to the face-to-face situation.

The philosophic position behind this “third circle” is often called “the metaphysics of presence,” and this matter of the reality or the mythology of “presence” has, I think, been underreported in the literature of online and mediated and distance learning. ETC could do something about that.

Jacques Derrida wrote much–and densely–about “the metaphysics of presence.” About “logocentrism,” and the power of the Word when present, and , importantly for proponents of mediated instruction, on “phonocentrism,” the assumed differences in impact and meaning of the spoken and the written word.

Perhaps Farber’s articles could help us get a modest shared background on this matter of “presence,” and we might get help from folks in philosophy on Heidegger and Derrida and the implications of “the metaphysics of presence” for the future of online learning.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 7:22AM): The social benefits happen outside of the classroom. People make lifelong friends and set up future business relationships. They join clubs that foster success after graduation. I would never suggest (at least from my personal experience) any social benefits from sitting in a classroom.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 7:32AM): Harry is not talking, then, about “learning” as the curriculum defines it, but about “social capital.” About the so-called “extra-curriculum.”

(When he was President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson wrote extensively about what he called student excitement and involvement in the “sideshows” and their lack of of interest in “the main tent”: the classroom and the curriculum.

Others here and everywhere attribute important learning enhancement and benefits from “presence”: from the living word, from the face-to-faceness of the classroom as opposed to what they see as the “distance” imposed by distance learning: the lack of this almost mystical “presence.”

Farber is one strong voice speaking for this “presence.” Hubert Dreyfus is another.

I don’t think the issue has found its way into distance learning circles, and it’s at the very center of our work, and yet largely unrecognized and unremarked.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 8:26AM): Regarding “presence”:

1. I don’t see it. Except for the very unusual show types, having a prof in the room with you gains little or nothing.

2. It’s more useful for the instructor who can gauge the impact of what’s going on by the faces (rapt or blank stares or whatever). Tools available today to online instructors can do even better than face-reading, however.

3. I often had the person who wrote the book (and in one case was writing it daily) giving the lectures. The only advantage to the class was being able to ask questions, but with 180 students, the opportunities to do so were small. Online is better in that respect.

4. Seeing professors out of their element gives little idea of what they really do. However, every first-year student cannot visit the professors as they’re working.

5. Many online students have remarked that they’re cowed in traditional classes but can open up and become involved in online classes.

Persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 8:49AM): Harry, it seems increasingly clear to me that many of us heavily involved in mediated instruction are unfamiliar with the large and important literature on this matter of “presence” and “the metaphysics of presence,” and unaware of the role it plays in philosophy and practice–and, importantly for our work, in the serious resistance to distance learning.

An interesting and intricate example of the power of presence thesis is MIT: hardly an enemy of technology and technology-enhanced learning. MIT is increasingly technologizing its instruction–but on campus. As far as I know, complee resistance to distance learning for its students. All MIT credit instruction, as far as I know, requires that you be “present.” On the other hand, distance learning students around the world can make arrangements to access the4 MIT “i-labs” program: lab instruction online.

Hubert Dreyfus is a philosopher who has written such important books as WHAT COMPUTERS CAN’T DO. His book ON THE INTERNET is a serious critique of mediated instruction built around the “presence” thesis.

If we want to engage the important critics of distance learning we need to know more about their position and deep concerns. That means, I think, taking their arguments seriously and engaging with them.

Farber’s articles, and Dreyfus’ ON THE INTERNET would give us a start in developing a common background on the “presence” thesis.

Or: we should know more about it before we attack. It’s serious, substantial stuff–not just anti-technology claptrap.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 10:08AM): I’d like to see the gloves come off in the discussion on this topic. Although our view of the future is hazy and dark, we can consider the effects of various futures.

Replacing the sage on the stage with the net mentor has to be a positive step. Loss of a place (secondary school or college) where people gather together ostensibly to learn but really have learning as the secondary purpose, will have repercussions. What are they? Where do those sports teams go? Will the academic part of a college evaporate leaving behind a sports program as its residue? I’m guessing that some alums wouldn’t mind, but the national fraternities and sororities will. Can they have virtual counterparts?

If students can get high school diplomas and college degrees online, they’ll be at home much more putting more of a burden on the parents. Actually going to college exposes many students to other regions and other cultures. When I went to graduate school in New York City, I had never been East of the Mississippi or ridden on a subway or been to a coffee house. I saw a woman’s purse snatched right across the street from me. I saw Jackie Kennedy going to my own drugstore. I saw Robert Preston walking to a rehearsal on a nearly empty Broadway early in the morning. I met Tom Clancy (of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy …) in a bar once. I saw Gene Kruppa practicing his drums in a nightclub in the middle of the day. All of this stuff has nothing to do with classes. It’s the other part of your education.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The implications of StraighterLine are very very far-reaching as are those of the entire online movement.

3 Responses

  1. It seems to me that the posts are mistakenly thinking that offering college courses for $99 a month is all about online learning. It really isn’t. Substitute F2F courses for online courses in the article and see what happens. If the for-profit venture taught students in a F2F setting, the problem with accredited colleges apparently selling their brand/image to “launder” college credits would still remain. The article and its author, as well as some posters here, are at fault for ascribing the problem to one concerning online learning. It’s not. Online learning is just the carrier or messenger, not the culprit.

  2. I think it misses the point somewhat to argue that the current Higher Education structure is preferable to what the article describes on social grounds. The purpose of taking a degree, doing an MA etc is to LEARN. Or at least it should be. Seeing it as an accreditation stepping stone, a means to an end, is unfortunately prevalent. Either way, the fun, social, life enriching aspect being discussed isn’t relevant to the main goal. It’s a side-effect – a good one, but a side-effect none the less.

    Further, we are wrong to assume that Straightline type courses would produce a bunch of social lepers. Ok, you don’t get to spend 3 years trapped with thousands of people your own age largely from your own demographic. Instead, you can go out and experience the real world, work a real job, in a way that normal student will be asked to do when they graduate anyway. I’m sure if there were no universities the demographic that used to be their students would form their own social areas and entities. Probably ones that involved the same school peer group that you have to leave behind when you go to university.

  3. Rich social interactions, whether indispensable to the college experience or side gifts, leaves out the simple fact that not all the social experiences are rich. College graduation rates are abysmal, and social experiences are a major factor–when we list all the social experiences students have, be sure to include binge drinking and drug use.

    I founded an online public high school a number of years ago, with the intention of offering only supplemental social courses. We were immediately flooded with requests from students who wanted to go full time. Why? The primary reason was the social experiences that people seem to find so valuable. The girls who had been acquaintance raped did not want to go back to that circle of friends, for while the rapist had been forced to leave that school his friends were all there. Many students were looking for an escape from incessant bullying.

    Yes, many graduates look back on their campus social experiences with fondness, but many others look back in horror.

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