Online charlatans?

Today the Sydney Morning Herald has lent its editorial elbow to the effort to figure out whether online learning represents the end of traditional university teaching, in much the same way that the Buggles taught us back in the 70s that video killed the radio star. They way they tell it, defeat is inevitable:

In cyberspace, the ivory towers of academia are undoubtedly crumbling.

Thrilling stuff.  It’s like that middle section of The Lord of the Rings where everything has gone wrong (and the walls are definitely crumbling) and no one can yet see how the situation will right itself in the future.  But there’s more:

The momentum towards online teaching, learning and collaboration is unstoppable. … The traditional lecture could, in fact, become an online multimedia package to be viewed at home or on a smart phone on the bus before class, so students can use their time on campus better to make sense of its contents. With a world of knowledge just a click away, the future meaning of literacy may well become the ability to sift rapidly through information online, to critically assess its credibility and value and to understand how to apply it.

Well, yes.  It’s just that this is one of the well-established present meanings of literacy, already embedded the primary school curriculum, where our youngest children recognise that throwing together a homework project no longer involves sifting slowly through a limited set of print resources available in the home or local library, but increasingly means going to Google and finding three paragraphs on a topic that can be pasted together, and presented in a showcase of wacky font styles. Their teachers already know that the literacy skills they need are precisely those that involve assessing value and figuring out to do with what you get, and they’re on the case.

So what does this mean for those of us sitting around in the crumbly old ivory tower waiting for these younger siblings of the digital natives, who will be either ambling on to our underresourced campuses or not in about 12 years time? According to recent research, the under 10s are already on Facebook in large numbers, and they’re also avid, clever users of the online social environments set up to cater for their age group perhaps more appropriately.  (Although I’m not in the handwringing camp about minors on Facebook, but that’s another issue.)

I’ve been following a discussion about whether the rise of online higher education course offerings represent a kind of educational charlatanism, which is really a pretty serious frame for this consideration.  Casually, a charlatan is a kind of fraud posing as an expert, a grifter whose claims to knowing secrets don’t hold up to scrutiny, and whose product is a dud. But there’s a wonderful discussion here about the difference between a charlatan and a knowing fraud, who deliberately sets out to deceive. Rather, a charlatan is a colourful fool who may also be unstable, but whose aim is to promote one way of doing things as the only possible manifestation of expertise.

So I’m not sure this is the right term, even though I spend enough time in committees with people who have been at the corporate Kool Aid, to recognise that anyone can fall for the sales pitch that online learning achieves miraculous levels of “student-centredness” and “authentic learning” and any number of other transformative experiences. Mostly, I think these people just need to spend more time working directly with students before they tell us how online anything will transform the challenges they face.

But the charlatan doesn’t just act out of delusional thinking; the fakery is always deliberately hooked up to profit. And it’s the bottom line that’s starting to worry both advocates and critics. To understand the risks we face, we need to move beyond emotive scenarios involving the swarming Facebooking hordes and the last defenders of the face-to-face faith, walled up in their towers waiting for the final brick to fall.

The real showdown doesn’t involve those of us who teach online, or even those of our students who want their lectures delivered in little chunks on YouTube, whether to watch them on the the bus or just make them into Hitler’s downfall spoofs. The movement to watch is the conglomeration of digital content farms, in which a smaller and smaller number of major corporates are quietly taking their collective business interests as close to monopoly as US legislation will allow.

Higher educational institutions acting alone have very little opportunity to control the standards, functions, or business goals of these large corporations. This is very serious, especially for higher education in smaller economies, as it’s very unlikely that we are well defended against becoming content importers in education, as we are in every other form of media.

Meanwhile, academics who are trying to sustain the kinds of experimental pedagogy that’s been happening online for 15-20 years are increasingly finding themselves with an unpromising choice of piracy or privateering.

Compared to all this, your everyday charlatanism starts to look quite benign.

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