President’s Column May 2015 Janet Glass
I teach courses for Rutgers, a New Jersey State University. Last semester I had a student living in Seoul, Korea and one in Saudi Arabia. Rutgers offered the courses online. I like to call this new online learning environment Everywhere University.
First, what do I mean by Everywhere? I mean places where there is enough reliable electricity most of the time and there is also broadband access to the internet. What do I mean by University? I mean three different tiers: institutions that grant degrees, college-level courses that are free and grant certificates of completion such as MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) or Coursera courses, and a broader definition of learning including the ability to study new things by having access to lectures, videos and entire libraries.
There are cheerleaders claiming that Everywhere University will solve the equality gap between rich and poor in this country and will end the disparity of educational opportunities between third world and first world nations. There are claims it may mean the end to student loan debt, date rape, binge drinking, and the distraction of college sports. On the other hand, detractors say it destroys the rigor of the classroom and the stimulation of the college campus experience, puts education further into the hands of for-profit concerns, dehumanizes the interactions between students and professors, and encourages plagiarism.
Although there are many interesting issues on all sides of the online learning question, there is consensus on one thing. We are going to see more and more of it. This will be the first of a multi-part series on Everywhere University. Let’s begin with the broadest definition of online learning that does not involve credentials, credits, tuition or degrees.
Take a trip with me south of the border. In 2009 and 2010, I went to a rural town in Oaxaca, Mexico to deliver free workshops to teachers. It was part of an ongoing effort to expose educators to curricula rich in higher order thinking skills. San José del Progreso is the town where a former colleague was born. He and I formed a non-profit organization to help fight the educational deficits there that are associated with poverty. In San José there is one paved road. Chickens and packs of dogs freely wander and swarms of mosquitoes thrive. Dengue fever is a perpetual threat. There is electricity for a few hours every day. There are no newspapers and the public library is always closed. School lets out at noon so that teachers and students can help pick limes, the center of the economy of the town. The scarce materials in the schools are provided by the government and they largely consist of rote learning about national heroes. When I arrived, broadband had just become available. There, in San José del Progreso, the value of the resources on the internet was already becoming incalculable. My friend’s niece immediately set out to find out about colleges in Mexico City and what she would have to do to prepare to apply to medical school. She realized the educational handicaps she was faced with, but could now find ways to begin to address them online. Everywhere University was going to have an impact on the lives of people in that town, and towns like it around the world, that were as transformative as the invention of electricity.
This is not just a benefit for San Jose, however. We all got a glimpse into the beauties of the cultural traditions of the area when the mayor of the town filmed the Guelaguetza festival and uploaded it to YouTube. My students at Dwight-Englewood School were privileged to get a personal greeting from that video. The treasure trove of authentic clips available from around the world has made Everywhere University, in its broadest sense, a reality for many.
The consequences of this globalization, however, are not welcomed by all. In the area of Oaxaca where I was doing my work, the native language is not Spanish, but Mixtec. My friend’s parents spoke Mixtec at home and he and his brothers and sisters could all speak it, as well. Inevitably, with the globalization of the culture, comes the threat of extinction. The younger folks in the town were no longer conversant in Mixtec. Despite attempts to use modern media to record the last speakers in a culture, there are losses. For example, some local herbal remedies depend on the language to identify the plants that don’t have names in modern languages. It is impossible for researchers to get to every dying culture and document its wisdom. Cultures like the Amish know that Everywhere University would spell the end of their way of life. They fully ban any access.
As an Ethical Culture Society, where do we stand on global access to videos, lectures and libraries online? Even if we are not taking a course, is this form of education of value to us? Does it fit into bringing out the best in others and ourselves? Does it work to help us fight social injustices? Although this is not as simple as it may first appear, when it comes to information, I believe we must err on the side of more. Ethical Culture has a special mission in this which is to provide a lens by which to assess the value of the content that we take in as well as what we put out.
The next column will take a personal look at online learning in terms of courses in higher education, the future of the workforce and the students and institutions most and least likely to benefit. I would like to read your thoughts, as well. Comments welcome.