Resistance to change

Two seemingly unrelated bits of context/scene-setting here–

1. Way back in 2004, my officemate Juanita Rogers Comfort and I were on a panel with a grad school mentor of mine, Rebecca Moore Howard, at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. Becky’s paper for that panel, which I read for her because she couldn’t make the trip, was called “Balancing Institutional Expectations and Disciplinary Expertise.” In short, Becky contends that as members of institutions, our own disciplinary knowledge about how students learn to write, what “good writing” entails, etc only buy us so much leeway in resisting the demands our colleagues in other disciplines (sometimes even our own) and administrators put on us, even when those demands reflect a clear misunderstanding of students, rhetoric, and writing instruction. She doesn’t recommend caving, either, and the paper ends before she could articulate that balance very fully–and even if she could have, it would have been different for every school and time anyway, so…

2. Over the last couple of years, as the public debate about online education (primarily higher ed, but increasingly K-12 too) has heated up, the refrain “You people who resist online education are just resistant to change” appears quite frequently. The argument, apparently, is that because we’re not willing to leap on a bandwagon (or accept the “new normal” or [insert neo-liberal phrase here]), we’re just too attached to our own bad selves to get with the program (pun intended).

The connection between these two points is, I hope, kind of obvious.

But just in case–

There are, as far as I can tell, 3 versions of the pro on-line education argument.

1. Online courses/programs give college access to students who couldn’t get it otherwise–because of geography, schedules, life issues…  That is, if you can’t get to college any other way, you can do this. I know very few professional educators who have a complaint with this notion.

2. Online courses/programs are just as good as conventional brick and mortar programs because they offer all kinds of advantages that mitigate the disadvantages. Or, the more disingenuous version I’ve seen occasionally (but not made by any professionals), because you can’t prove that online courses aren’t as good as face-to-face courses, they must be, so there.

3. Online courses/programs are better. The most recent iteration of this argument is about MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses)–that MOOCs feature the very best faculty, using the very best technology, emphasizing the very best content, and offering it for the very best price (free).

Here’s the thing.

I’m actually not at all opposed to putting college content online, or the notion that online material can provide positive learning experiences for college students. I’ve spent the last three years on a team, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, that’s developing interactive science ethics education modules for upper-level undergraduate and graduate science students. The rationale for our project is that we’re able to provide experiential learning opportunities to students anywhere on the planet (as long as they read English, for now), without the expense of having to build, stock, or travel to labs (or the danger of conducting experiments with real machines and chemicals!). Clearly, my work on this project should demonstrate that I’m not opposed, in principle, to making college educational opportunities available on the Internetz.


As Mark Edmundsun argues in Friday’s New York Times, college education is, at its heart, dialogic. That means “interactive” if “dialogic” sounds too pretentious. His version of dialogue, that teachers can’t teach well unless we get direct, immediate, palpable feedback from students doesn’t go far enough even for my taste–I’d argue that true dialogue entails students teaching me as much as I teach them, but that’s a debate he and I should have between the two of us:)–but the point is important. Even the best professor, once he/she has recorded a lecture and posted a series of exercises that he/she never looks at students’ responses to, isn’t engaging with the students. That is, access to information does not equal education in the rich sense of the word that professional educators mean it.

As I’ve been interviewing faculty members (so far, two in the US and one in New Zealand) who have beta-tested the SciEthics Interactive modules we’re developing for NSF, one of the very clear themes emerging from those conversations is that the modules are great, but they don’t do much without the support of a faculty member contextualizing and debriefing the students, and they do even less without the students having an opportunity to debrief and reflect on their experiences together.

That is: even a module that’s designed, from beginning to end, to be interactive and experiential doesn’t work as well as it could if the students just complete it individually and never engage other students or teachers about it.

As online technologies get better at allowing real-time, face-to-face interactions over long distances (Skype, Google+ hangouts, videoconferencing technologies of other kinds), the possibilities for authentically interactive/dialogic education will improve. And I’m fine with that. If I could do what I do anywhere I wanted to be as long as I have internet access, I’d probably like that–at least sometimes. But we’re not there yet.

And for ed-tech advocates to accuse me of refusing to get with the program because my long experience as a teacher and researcher gives me quite solid grounds for resisting is mistaken if not dishonest. Most of the people advocating hightech willy-nilly have either not taught, or have financial attachments to hightech concerns. And pardon me for putting it so bluntly, but I think I know better than the first, and my motives aren’t as corrupt as the second.


6 Responses to Resistance to change

  1. coolrebel says:

    Excellent and fair response to the debate. Great education has to involve “interaction” with real teachers/people, which kind of sticks it to the digithead reading of the world which is we only need facebook, wikipedia, and text messages to make it on this planet. Off-line communication is just so old skool.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    What about those who have taught (f2f, online & hybrid/web enhanced), have no financial attachments to hightech concerns and have actually taken moocs (not just the latest buzz big name kind either)?

    • sethkahn says:

      What about them? I mean that as an honest question. I’m responding specifically to accusations made against faculty who are suspicious of on-line-teaching-as-panacea.

      • VanessaVaile says:

        I ask as one of that category who gets verbally assaulted for suggesting that there might be a place for online. Most in this category, at least from the blogs and groups I follow, do not see or characterize online as panacea but are regularly perceived as such. As you noted earlier apropos a broader range of higher education problems, binary positioning by extremes in either groups really gets in the way.


      • sethkahn says:

        Most people who actually teach online don’t pose it as a panacea, but a lot of people who support it and advocate for it do pose it that way. And many of them (like the Gates Foundation) are profiting more or less directly from the exponential growth of technology sales. Others are benefiting from decreased expenses of maintaining universities (fewer faculty, reduced supply costs, etc).

        I have a great deal of respect for people who approach online education in sound pedagogical and curricular ways. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much in the public debate from them because they’re too busy working.

      • VanessaVaile says:

        Not long ago I was accused of being a traitor to my class, profession, adjuncts, etc. Made me testy to say the least. You’d probably like the OER and connectivist bunch. From my perspective, I see a lot in common. Not in the least like Gates, Pearson, Lumina, et al. The ethics program you describe sounds interesting, When I get my eyes back, I’ll take a closer look.

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