Tonight I watched this old National Film Board of Canada production: https://www.nfb.ca/film/shift_change
The speaker was James Laxer, a traditional prof at York University, Toronto in Political Economy, and a socialist/activist of the late 60s mode. In this film he was thoughtful and in his predictions did better than most do when prognosticating. He talked about the economic disruption that comes with new technology. His focus was on Canada, and on my city, Hamilton Ontario, which from the 1880s to the 1980s was the exemplar of a heavy manufacturing town in Canada. He got most of it right – although produced in 1986. The Steel Company of Canada, which employed 14000 in its heyday and 9000 when this film was made, now has about 800 populating its dark and bankrupt acreage and is owned by U.S. Steel. He does not mention Dofasco down the road, also a primary steel producer, but second in size then to Stelco, which today employs 3000 in a high tech plant, owned by Arcelor Mittal. But this does not change his observations much as virtually all the large manufacturing businesses in Hamilton are gone now: Westinghouse, Proctor & Gamble, International Harvester, Firestone. He also saw the early hints that the success of Japan in that period might be ephemeral as indeed it has proved to be, but if you take Japan for India and east Asia in general he was still correct to a point. He didn’t see the rise of the internet, and the creation of small businesses, but who did?. China and other Asian countries mostly assemble devices meant to utilize the internet, but which are invented and designed in the United States and to a lesser extent in other western countries.
Where are people working in Hamilton and in much of the western world now? They are working part time, or in short term contract jobs, or they have formed their own businesses. Few still have old style employment. They work in the so-called service industry, waiting tables, at café counters, retail stores. The only jobs still paying and providing benefits in the old style are in government or the auto industry. Driving around Hamilton, the old industrial north and east end is filled with derelict factory buildings. But if you drive east towards Niagara you see a long line of small and mid-sized companies that still employ industrial workers.
What does this have to do with online teaching? Well the technological revolution has hit higher education. At first this meant only shiny gadgets in classrooms: white boards, projectors, internet connections. That is, universities and the professoriate who control universities internally, used technology to enhance or aid but not change the way teaching has been done in universities since the first institutions appeared in the Middle Ages in western Europe. Recently, the large numbers of students flooding into universities, and the lack of money to increase the number of professors to match this increase has produced a small but growing number of online courses. This change has not, in Canada at least meant the hiring of large numbers of part time instructors, though tenured professors prefer to leave online teaching to the part timers. Most of these online courses are little more than either filmed lectures in lecture halls, or reams of text posted on course web sites, enhanced with photographs or links. What is only slowly being realized is that online teaching is not classroom teaching. It is a different creature that requires different approaches. A purely linear methodology does not work so well online as students can and do leap ahead to the end of a course, or parachute into the middle, or surf off on a link before returning. Some never return, alas.
I have experience only in the Humanities as an instructor, and in History to be precise. Here it might be supposed that linearity is both vital and key. But it is not. What in the final analysis is the purpose of teaching History? Certainly it is not to train the next generation of PhDs, though some tenured professors seem to think otherwise. Recent stats from the Conference Board of Canada indicate that 82% of all PhDs in Canada are not teaching – or to put it more obviously, only 18% are and this 18% includes part timers. I would assume that History PhDs are a significant portion of the 82%. Most students, the overwhelming majority, regard their History courses as a general or vague interest or as an easy way to fulfill an Arts or Humanities requirement on the road to their degree in something immediately practical. We online instructors need to surreptitiously introduce the principle practical aspect of the Humanities: evidence-based critical thought. There is a serious lack of carefully balanced thinking in the world today and many problems could be avoided if this were inculcated in students.
I was hauled on the carpet once because a ‘star’ tenured prof complained at a good grade I gave a bad student (something that never happens to a full timer). I gave that grade because I saw that student begin to think, to take actual evidence and think about it critically.
Anyway, online teaching provides a good opportunity to this end. In large classes it is still possible to provide individual guidance using email, instant messengers such as Skype, or online fora. Students are beginning to think in a three-dimensional in depth fashion shaped by surfing the net and online courses can handle this and turn it to the underlying raison d’être of the Humanities. In a classroom, you could certainly veer off on tangents, then bring those tangents back into the focus of the lecture, but only in a severely limited way because you are restricted to the set time period of a lecture class. Online, you can take as much time as you wish exploring tangents and relating them to the focus of the course, and the underlying critical thinking that the Humanities teaches best.