This began as a comment reply to Pinky’s partially tongue-in-cheek comments about the future of higher education, but it got so long I decided to make it a post instead.
Regarding higher education in the U.S., the structure of the overall system is clearly changing, but I don’t think any of us know just how it’s all going to work out. Obviously on-line education is becoming more important, and straight lectures probably can be replaced/replicated through recording them once and replaying them. But it’s important to realize that there’s a lot of market segmentation in higher ed. Not only can’t all of what we do be replaced by video, not all students want to deal with an impersonal learning environment.
I do some online teaching, and it works pretty well for the introductory courses I have done on-line: American Gov’t, International Relations, and Public Administration. Would my Research Methods course work well on-line? Parts of it, I think, but for the most part only for those who are well above average in intelligence and come into it with a scientific mindset. In other words, the majority would, I expect, find the material a bad fit for online/recorded-lecture delivery. Similarly with the laboratory sciences, although I can envision the development of virtual labs of really high quality, there still needs to be actual real-time interaction with the instructor to get the most of out the lab.
And some students want the face to face (or F2F, as we’re calling it now) learning model. They crave human interaction, not just staring at a computer screen. They might be willing to supplement their overall education by taking some distributional courses on-line (in my on-line community college courses, a lot of the students are actually full-time at the state’s public universities and even the state’s leading private four-year colleges), but they don’t want a total on-line education. They recognize its limitations in quality, and they use it opportunistically. Others are working adults who find it difficult to make regularly scheduled F2F courses, and need the convenience of an on-line course that allows them to get into the lecture when they get off work at 11 PM. For a lot of them it’s not so much a choice between F2F or online as a choice between online or not taking any courses.
For small private colleges like mine, the real challenge isn’t coming from online education, but from a change in perspective about the value of an education. It’s increasingly hard to sell students on shelling out so much money to study philosophy, literature, political science. They tend to want practical degrees. Private liberal arts colleges of long-standing prestige may still be able to draw a full student body of the liberal arts inclined student, but colleges like mine are the ones in real trouble. It’s hard work to keep them solvent, because the cost-structure requires much higher prices than the state schools, so you have to offer something the state schools can’t, or at least usually don’t. The liberal arts experience is part of that, but, again, most students aren’t inclined that way (at least when they’re first shopping for colleges). The small class size and personal interaction with the profs are the really big selling point–and that’s not something you can replicate online or via recorded lectures. But my college, not being one of historically high prestige (traditionally a “teachers and preachers” school), has not been able to thrive just using a small-class size and liberal arts education model–that’s still our core, in a lot of ways, but increasingly our model has shifted to small-class size and pre-professional majors. The departments that are growing the most and getting the most new resources (more faculty, etc.) are the pre-professional programs. Fortunately their growth has also produced more students for some of the other programs, including mine.
But what that’s all forced me to do is to engage in some serious thinking about what my department contributes to the College. It’s easy for us faculty to rhapsodize about the importance of our disciplines, and as a liberal arts-minded person myself, I do think it’s important and valuable to take some courses in philosophy, history, literature, etc. But the College’s first and most necessary task is to keep itself solvent, and a mere by-the-numbers look at some departments might not demonstrate much added value. All of our students are required to take a philosophy or religion course for example,* but there are less than a handful of philosophy majors at any given time. Could we get by without a philosophy department? I shudder at the thought, but financially, yes, we could, and we might be slightly better off (financially) for it.
Fortunately my department, as noted, has grown, and I think we have more than enough majors that our continued presence is not really a concern. And it helps (although it irritates) that our college president thinks of us in pre-professional terms. But we’re not one of the departments that has had new faculty added, and I have reason to believe that if we’re offered a future hire, we won’t have free reign over the job description, but will be desired to find someone who can contribute in a pre-professional manner, such as law and/or public administration/policy.** But short of shifting our entire focus to pre-professional education, how do we demonstrate our value to the College? One of the ways has been our department’s participation in the Model Arab League (like Model UN, but just the Arab League states), a program that students have embraced with passion (none of my doing; all credit and praise to my colleague, Phil). Our President loves it; hooray! And on my side I’ve been trying to stress the linkages with other disciplines; Political Science as value-added to essentially every conceivable discipline under the sun, because what field of study is there where politics does not have some relevance? So my Political Economy class is cross-listed in Economics; until some restructuring of credit hours made it infeasible, our Constitutional Law courses were cross-listed with Criminal Justice; and my Nuclear Weapons and Power course is both cross-listed with Chemistry and co-taught between me and a member of the Chemistry department (in fact the course was his idea). As it runs out, roughly half our majors are dual majors; many with history, but also English, Philosophy, Criminal Justice or Communications, and we’ve even had two students who double-majored in Math and Political Science, and had a Chemistry and Political Science double major (who ended up transferring and focusing only on Chemistry, but who still comes back to visit and rave about how valuable her Poli Sci courses were).
I know for sure this is an intellectually defensible model–in fact it is the liberal arts model. I don’t know for sure that it’s going to be sufficient in itself to demonstrate to the folks who actually have to worry about the College budget that we’re vital. And I never really stop thinking about how to make sure they know we are. Because ultimately it’s always our own responsibility to demonstrate our value, and that’s a tough task in a department that is a) under-resourced and consisting of only two full-time faculty, and b) is a very traditional liberal arts-oriented program in a changing educational environment. And truthfully, I enjoy the challenge. It keeps me attached to the real world in a particular way, and I think it’s incumbent upon everyone, in any organization, to think about whether and how they are adding value for the organization. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be too surprised if someone higher up decides you’re not.
*For the record, although we’re affiliated with the United Methodist church, we’re not really a church school in any academic sense. You can take philosophy and satisfy the requirement, so that you never have to take a religion course at all, or you can take Religions of the East or Drugs and Religious Experience to satisfy the requirement, as well as some courses focused on Christianity.
**I am continually annoyed that they do not recognize that I am a policy person. I may need to rename some of my courses: Environmental Politics to Environmental Policy; Political Economy to Economic Policy; Nuclear Weapons and Power to Nuclear Policy. There is something to be said for self-promotional advertising. After all, I could either sit and complain that they don’t recognize what it is I do, or I could accept that as the state of affairs and take upon myself the responsibility of educating them.