This article began with a look at the change in culture in the U.S. Here in Canada, I have experienced some of that over my lifetime thus far. I worked for 20 years as a clerk in the head office of a large manufacturing corporation. When I began, the company had 11,000 employees in Canada and about 750 million a year in sales. I recall clearly as a 20 year-old looking at my first pension statement with a retirement year of 2016. So distant! So far into the unimaginable future! The department where I worked had about 20 staff back in the early 1970s. When I jumped ship in 1992, the head office staff had shrunk from 600 to about 80 and my department from 20 to 4 workers. Three, after I left. My lifeboat was a BA I had earned at night school while at this company. I earned this sitting in classrooms from 6:15 to 9:15 pm taking notes in pen on paper as professors, most of whom were good teachers, taught me how to think critically. I didn’t expect ever to need this degree; it was a labour of love. When I saw that the company would sink soon, I managed a bronze handshake and jumped into my BA lifeboat. I rowed it through graduate school, finally achieving a doctorate in History at a mid-level university. There I found myself standing on the deck, or sleeping third class. I tried numerous times to find a permanent berth on nearby ships, but found no place. So now, I live as an unwanted, but somewhat needed deck swabber in the same ship I earned my graduate degree. I now see the same signs I saw in the early 1990s at my former ship. Huge waves swamp the decks where I live and work. So far I have held onto the rail and managed to avoid being swept overboard.
The linked article is about the turn to online learning at even the top American schools, due to the pandemic, but also due to the gradual unaffordability of a college degree in the United States. The situation there is more dire than Canada at the moment. Colleges and universities there have only taken on temporary deck hands for years and offer them fewer places to hang onto rails as each wave washes over. The pandemic is a mighty storm that has swamped many and threatens many more. I began teaching online in 2004, alongside some classroom, face-to-face courses. For the past few years, however, I have taught only online. These are my deck railings that have kept me on board for years now. The big universities in the States are frantically installing more railings as waves wash students – the passengers who pay for these great ships – over board too.
I surveyed MOOCS just as the author of the article has and could not believe the poor quality of education on offer. I recall watching one such course that consisted of a video camera with poor sound pointing at an instructor in a lecture hall, who droned on and on, while referring to notes on a white board that the camera could not show. Not only the poor technical use and poor design of the MOOC, the instructor did drone and would have provided a poor experience for the students actually present. The MOOC surveyed above in 2020 and supplied by Harvard is of better quality in technical terms, but the content is worse than that offered by the droning instructor. But, a student can say they sailed on the good ship Harvard for a while, without financially crippling their future.
What I set out to write here was two-fold. One, the realization that the ships upon which middle class and poor people sail are ancient and leaking, barely staying afloat in the massive storms raging since the oil crisis of the mid 1970s. Meanwhile, the class of sailor and passengers who are in the elites, sail smoothly in their large, well appointed ships, scarcely noticing the storms that have wrecked lives or made life extremely tenuous for the rest of us. The second point I wanted to make was to point out the disastrously poor quality of much of online education. MOOCS were a good idea that, if Harvard as described in the link above is correct, have scarcely improved since their introduction eight years ago. Even worse, the ships with fewer resources and lesser names than Harvard, employ ZOOM to teach which make Harvard’s MOOCs look good indeed.
I will have to say, that the form employed by the ship where I grip the railing so desperately, is good, or can be good. That depends on the instructor more than the course designers. Will the instructor interact with the class frequently? Or will the poor deck swabber, swab mechanically and ignore the paying passengers except when they board and when they debark or when they get in the way of the sweeping motion of the mop? I don’t know. Up to the point of this new storm, the pandemic, I suspect that the permanent crew pretty much ignored us deck swabbers and did not care at all for the promise and the problems of online courses. Now they must.