Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cultures 5 and 6: Virtual and Tangible Cultures

1. The 2008 expanded edition of Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy includes two additional cultures: virtual and tangible cultures. I won't summarize the previous emphases and cultures in this post, because I hope to synthesize it all tomorrow. But here is the trail of bread crumbs.

The advent of online education, the ability to teach at a distance through technology, has revolutionized education. Hanna has called it part of an "entrepreneurial" culture. Bergquist and Pawlack connect it to an interest in global education, so perhaps we could call it a global culture, although the limitations of the international context are still somewhat restrictive in this regard. There is also something to be said for a distance emphasis that is not virtual but involves taking education to people. So there is a collection of elements here that may stand better classification than Bergquist and Pawlack have given.

The rise of the virtual and distance culture is arguably giving rise to a sixth culture--tangible culture. When the only option was face-to-face, being onsite was not a distinct culture (I'm taking a position here on a debate). But now in response to the rise of virtual culture, there come to be distinctives of an onsite education over and against a virtual or even a distance one. I believe this culture is in its formative stage, but my experiences suggest some thoughts on where it might go.

2. First, although I agree that there are distinct issues relating to virtual education, I think we might divide chapter 5 into one emphasis and one culture. I would like to call the emphasis a distributive emphasis that some colleges and universities can have. You might call it a "missionary" culture.

Online education is just one mode, even if the predominant mode, in an orientation toward bringing education to the student rather than bringing the student to the education. I believe that those institutions that will be most successful going forward will heavily tend to be those involved in distance education of some sort. With more and more options for students to stay where they are, especially adult students, residential campuses come to dominate less and less.

Online is only one way to achieve the distribution of education. The branch campus has of course been around for a long time. But there is also the intensive class, where the students either come to campus for a week or you go to some convenient location near them for a few days. A hybrid class might start off in a face-to-face format and then finish online (or go online for a while only to end in a face-to-face closing).

This impulse to distribute one's education beyond the residential campus can involve a certain missionary mindset, a drive to see education get out. It can reach globally, either by taking the education to a foreign country physically or virtually. There are distinct issues with global virtual education, chiefly bandwidth and reliable internet. Many think the future of global education will involve the smart phone. The cell phone is omnipresent in Africa, for example.

3. Even though virtual education is a subset of a distributive mindset, it has tended to give rise to its own unique culture. Online education has facilitated the rise of the pedagogical and paternalistic cultures to dominance. Since there was so much skepticism about online education in its inception, individuals involved with it bent over backwards to demonstrate that, in fact, the learning was taking place.

There's mud on the face of those who reacted so strongly against online education fifteen years ago. Where are they now? Are their colleges even still open?

I came across a quote a few weeks ago that you don't need to worry about someone stealing a good idea. Rather, people tend to fight tooth and nail against them. My friend Keith Drury suggested the pattern is that they fight them. Then they fight them even harder. Then after it succeeds they attribute its success to some failure of the world. Then they adopt it.

I don't know why people worry about what others think. Be the benchmark. Don't worry about what others are doing if a group of you believe you have a good idea.

4. There are two approaches to online education. One leans a little more traditional and tends to be done by academic institutions that consider themselves of a higher quality. The other is designed for greater distribution and tends to draw more heavily on adjuncts.

So when I taught online for Asbury, each adjunct created his or her own courses from scratch. Asbury thus expected its adjuncts to be of the kind of quality that they might have teach a course on campus if you lived in the area. Your syllabus had of course to be approved by someone, but you were largely trusted to create your own course.

The other model, which is used at IWU, creates most online courses ahead of time. (In the Seminary, I created a space for full-time professors in rare occasions to create their own online courses without assistance.) In the design of a course, a content expert is brought into connection with an instructional designer. The result was meant to bring the best of three worlds together: 1) the content expertise of a faculty person, 2) the pedagogical expertise of an instructional designer, and 3) the teaching expertise of the actual course facilitator.

Initially, IWU called such teachers "facilitators" rather than professors. That's because their primary task is to facilitate learning and discussion rather than to bring content expertise themselves. We have since moved away from that terminology and I changed it from the beginning of the Seminary. But you can see that the teacher of a pre-created course can but does not have to have as much expertise in the course content as the traditional professor was expected to have.

So this second approach to online education creates the possibility for a certain "adjunct" culture, where perhaps the majority of courses are taught by part-time teachers.

5. You can see how online education has facilitated the rise of the managerial and what I have called a pedagogical culture. Timeliness and feedback become the most important pieces of the puzzle, since the professor is not standing in front of the student. The need for support systems becomes essential. Off Campus Library Services, virtual writing labs, attention to retention issues all become very important.

In a good online class, the average faculty to student interaction will be greater than in a face-to-face situation. The reason is because you cannot hide at the back of a virtual classroom. If you do not engage, you fail. And professors are expected to engage on an individual level, meaning that online education requires much more of a professor than face-to-face. Administrative skills become much more important.

Community can definitely exist in a virtual world. The cohort model, for example, takes the same group of students through a degree program together, which increases community and retention. If such a group is launched in a face-to-face context, the cohesion is even greater. Again, traditional classrooms put random students together class by class. So in this respect, the virtual community of any one class is usually greater online than onsite.

6. In the face of this onslaught, residential campuses will no doubt reinvent themselves. A friend of mine has suggested that, where equivalent onsite and online programs options exist side by side, the online options will eventually kill the onsite ones. The clear implication is that there must be some clear advantage to the onsite campus that counterbalances the convenience of online.

For the typical undergraduate context, the clear advantage is student life. Surely a sizable percentage of college students don't really go to college for the education anyway. They go for the party. So Indiana University is in no danger of losing its undergraduate campus.

Smaller and more obscure colleges will need something else, some other distinctive. Academic reputation is a possibility for some. Clearly Christian colleges will attract with the promise of a certain kind of formation or perhaps shielding (you can sell an anti-party context to many parents). There needs to be some distinctive "sell," though. What can a student get by coming here that they won't get online?

The sell can't be idealistic. Money wins. "I'd sure love to come to campus but I've got to work." The liberal arts aren't going to cut it in most cases. "Our campus has a roller coaster that runs through the dorms. You can ride it to class," is more what the doctor ordered. "Come join a battle." There has to be something that taps into strong human impulses if you want to beat the practicalities of money and convenience, not to mention those who are tapping into those strong human impulses.

No doubt "tangible" cultures will develop rapidly to compete with virtual and distance ones. It will be exciting to see what they come to look like.

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