The University of Walmart? Sorry, its more complicated than that!

Last week, President Obama unveiled his plans for higher education.  The speech appeared to emphasize the importance of high-quality higher education  combined with the need to control skyrocketing costs.  That’s nice, but the devil is in the execution.  Today I found myself reading Disappointed, Not Surprised by Colleen Flaherty which echoed my personal concerns eloquently.

Don’t get me wrong, the sentiment is as understandable as the need. However, as my title indicates…its complicated.

First let’s talk about quality. Quality will never improve if we continue down the road we are now traveling.  Students are being treated like numbers, or worse, “customers”. The increased use of online classes combined with the expanding temporary work-force (a.k.a. “adjunct professors”) is a symptom of the same commoditization on the faculty side of the coin.  Students are being pushed to buy a “package”.  The degree being touted is more of  a “product” that will grant purchasers access to a higher paying job rather than as a goal or an achievement.

How does this unenlightened vision translate into excellence or our vision of American exceptionalism?  It doesn’t.  Plain and simple.

Number crunchers are taking are taking out the human and the academic element here and replacing it with a Walmaritized version.  A college degree in a box may sound like a great idea, but it is hardly a key to critical thinking and knowledge building that should be associated with a higher degree.

The Walmartization of higher education is the last thing that we need.  The number of concerns I have can not be put into one simple blog.  However, I will try to outline a few that stick out like sore thumbs:

1.  Online learning does not lend itself to hands-on experience.  I used to teach molecular biology.  I taught it with lab and without lab.  Without lab was 20 times harder because it was substituting an abstraction for actual hands-on experience.  The subject became 20 times harder to learn but was probably 20 times cheaper for the university.  What’s next? Virtual labs?  Actually, they already exist.  But how does that prepare the student to work in the real world?

2. Increased use of adjunct faculty that are paid a pittance  – literally.  As a person with a doctoral degree from a very solid school, it is absolutely absurd that that a 14 week course in my chosen field grosses less than $3000.  Seriously? SERIOUSLY??? Exactly how much time can anyone devote  to preparing the 3 hours of lecture required a week on that kind of salary?  Let’s not even discuss office hours and correcting tests and papers.  This isn’t going to promote excellence. It promotes haphazard teaching as adjuncts frantically pack their schedules in order to put food on the table.

This brings me back to one the initial issues – that  of skyrocketing costs.  Why are the costs skyrocketing when faculty has been reduced to cheap slave labor and  courses requiring hands-on training are either non-existent or “virtual”?

More on that in the near future.  Like I said before, its complicated.

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