There’s an ongoing debate over whether online education is cheaper than its face-to-face counterpart.
There’s no doubt that it can be. It’s as easy as 1-2-3. All you have to do is:
- Uncap course enrollment.
- Automate grading.
- Substitute lower-paid graders, teaching assistants, coaches, course mentors and adjuncts for tenure-stream faculty.
You can reduce costs even further by eliminating physical classrooms, faculty offices, libraries, labs, studios, auditoriums, clubs and other student organizations, and athletics.
That’s not all. If cost cutting is your sole goal, you can:
- Create standardized master classes to be “taught” by whoever is cheapest.
- Adopt a self-paced, self-directed educational model to further reduce the need for instructors and support staff.
- Aggressively offer credit for prior learning, to increase throughput, and
- Substitute lower-cost certificates and certifications for degrees.
Yes, Virginia, online teaching can radically cut the cost of an education.
The mega-online providers, nonprofit as well as for-profit, have taken this model to an extreme. These institutions disaggregate the faculty role, separating content experts, who (in theory) design classes, from those who grade, mentor and even deliver the course content, with no expectation that these course assistants engage in scholarly research or even possess a terminal degree in the relevant discipline.
You can do something similar with face-to-face instruction, as all too many community colleges have done: substituting master’s degree holders and bachelor’s degree-holding teachers for Ph.D.s.
Of course, these cost savings come at a significant cost.
Let me suggest an alternative: all faculty members should be teacher-scholars.
All students who aspire to a bachelor’s degree ought to be taught by a content expert and an active researcher, with the sole exception of courses offered by skilled practitioners — artists, performers, authors, health-care providers, judges, lawyers, technologists — who bring real-world expertise and experience into the classroom.
This currently isn’t the case. In all but name, many institutions have created a teaching track with no expectations of scholarly engagement or requirements for professional development.
The obvious retort: a more professional professoriate isn’t practical or affordable. Cost pressures and the need for institutional flexibility limit institutional options. Without lower-paid adjuncts and other nontenurable instructors, institutions would have to drastically reduce enrollment in foundational and service classes or significantly increase class size, since it’s unlikely that regular faculty could or would take up the slack.
Worse yet, some claim, we need instructors who are dedicated teachers, and the qualities that make a successful scholar do not necessarily translate into effective teaching.
It’s no surprise that the Trump Department of Education saw nothing wrong with this state of affairs. You may have seen its new distance education regulations — which are designed, it says, to emphasize demonstrated learning rather than seat time and encourage employer participation in developing educational programs.
For a distance education program to remain eligible for financial aid, the program only has to meet two of the following five requirements:
- Provide direct instruction.
- Offer feedback on coursework.
- Respond to questions about course content.
- Facilitate a group discussion about the content.
- Engage in other instructional activities the institution’s or program’s accreditor has approved.
As long as the institution meets two of those requirements, it need not provide expert answers to student questions or offer group discussion or even provide detailed feedback.
That the Trump Department of Education would permit this is no surprise, but I don’t understand why accrediting agencies haven’t openly contested this position and explicitly argued on behalf of much higher standards, especially one standard: that all courses that apply to a bachelor’s degree be taught by a genuine scholar or a practitioner or a professional equivalent.
One of the most striking developments in recent years is the increasing democratization of the professoriate, not only in terms of gender, ethnic and racial diversity but in terms of scholarly productivity. One side effect of the awful academic job market is that publishing scholars can be found at institutions across the country. There is not a campus that I’ve visited that isn’t full of productive scholars.
Many of these faculty members feel, with justification, terribly underplaced, overworked and underpaid. But their students are the true beneficiaries. At every reputable institution, students encounter faculty members who are contributing to the scholarly enterprise and are able to bring the fruits of their original research and the latest scholarship into the classroom.
A lot of the debate about the mistreatment of adjuncts quite rightly focuses on academic freedom in addition to job security, compensation and benefits. But insufficient attention, in my view, is given to what I consider the very heart of being a professor: being an active and engaged scholar or researcher.
I do agree with those who argue that scholarship can and should take diverse forms. The categories of scholarship described by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which build on William Bowen’s suggestions, strike me as apt:
- The scholarship of discovery, contributing to the production of new knowledge, which is disseminated in publications.
- The scholarship of integration, involving synthesis, interpretation and analysis, also resulting in publications.
- The scholarship of application and practice, in which research is applied to individual, institutional and social problems.
- The scholarship of teaching and learning, involving research into and improvement of pedagogical practice that are widely disseminated.
- The scholarship of engagement, involving collaborative partnerships to addressing pressing community challenges.
Every profession worth its salt establishes minimal standards for professional training, practice and ongoing professional development, except our own.
Given the oversupply of Ph.D.s, expecting students to work with well-trained, highly qualified professionals who are engaged in some form of scholarly activity ought not be a fantasy. It should be an expectation.
So how might we re-professionalize the professoriate? Our professional associations should:
- Pressure accrediting agencies to raise standards for instructors in terms of training, ongoing professional development and ongoing engagement in scholarship and professional practice.
- Push back on efforts to disaggregate the faculty role.
- Reaffirm older professional assumptions, including requirements for “regular and substantive interaction,” provision of individualized, constructive feedback and demonstrated expertise in the discipline being taught.
- Demand that programs that abandon direct instruction by a well-qualified instructor and that fail to provide a robust liberal education be denied the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees.
But we also need to do something more: we need to hold ourselves to higher professional standards. A dozen years ago, the sociologist of higher education Steven Brint observed that while the words “professor” and “professional” come from the same Latin root, the professional model does not inform college teaching.
Professors, he wrote, “are required to demonstrate no skills in pedagogy, no understanding of the relation between specific types of pedagogy and subject matter content, and no understanding of the aims or purposes of education. For most, college teaching is, in short, an amateur activity, performed with limited regard to effectiveness, as long as teaching evaluations are acceptably high …”
Let’s pair our demand for placing true professionals in all classes with higher standards of teaching competence and ongoing evidence of continuing professional development and professional practice.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.