The world of higher education seems poised to enter a period of stark change: the onset of mass online education. Awash with excitement over this development, too many pundits are failing to discuss the cultural and ecological problems that the Internet revolution exacerbates.
In a syndicated New York Times op-ed titled “Come the Revolution,” Thomas Friedman extols this shift toward online education, citing the huge debt students are now taking on, especially when they study at elite universities such as Harvard or Stanford, and even at state universities. The convenience of taking online courses, especially when the cost is reduced to a hundred dollars per course, also gives credibility to Friedman’s announcement of the coming revolution (actually, online university degrees have been offered for several decades, with the British Open University being a prime example).
Friedman cites the example of the new online platform developed by two professors at Stanford University, and how one of the originators, Andrew Ng, taught a course on machine learning that was taken by 100,000 students around the world. The low cost to students, the international reach of online courses, the prospects of obtaining a university degree without being burdened for life with a huge debt, the ability for students to interact with other students and with professors, the way in which student performance can be machine evaluated, how the low cost of online courses combined with tens of thousands of students hugely improves the finances of universities, and the elite nature of the universities now leading the revolution in making higher education available to more students all add to the impression of the Internet as contributing to yet another form of progress. But Friedman, like many others, fails to examine the cultural and ecological problems that the Internet revolution intensifies.
The Replacement of Workers by Machines
The combination of economic globalization and the increasing use of computer-driven machines have created a situation in which one professor can be responsible for an online course with an enrollment of tens of thousands of students. This global shift is akin to the earliest era of the Industrial Revolution, when power-driven machines reduced the number of workers using preindustrial technologies for carrying out a particular task. With the introduction of steam engines and power looms, the productivity of two or three low-paid workers became equal to what previously required the labor of several hundred workers. Indeed, the human desire to replace drudgery and mind-numbing repetitive behaviors has been one of the driving forces in the West that led to equating new technologies with the idea of progress. The profit motive has also been part of this effort to replace workers with machines. The coming Internet era of online degrees will continue this tradition of displacing workers, in this case professors and classroom teachers, with computer simulations and other online curricula.
A question now being asked in other sectors of society is, “Will a computer program drive the machine that takes away my job?” This question will lead students thinking about an academic career to consider whether the industrialization of learning will be intellectually challenging, and whether there is the prospect of lifetime employment. With the globalization of knowledge, which means online degree programs can be produced anywhere in the world and by institutions of widely varying standards, having a lifetime career becomes increasingly uncertain. This industrialization of learning will also influence both the time devoted to scholarly research and whether the product of that research can be packaged as on online course.
The more immediate question relates to whether online degrees will lead fewer students to enroll in the bricks-and-mortar campuses. A downturn in enrollment will, in turn, lead to laying off of faculty in programs that are seen as increasingly unsustainable economically and thus as archaic in the postmodern digital world. Faculty who lack the knowledge and skills to work in one of the trades, which are themselves undergoing changes due to the introduction of labor-saving and cost-cutting machines, may also fail to understand that participating in the local cultural commons represents the difference between life-threatening poverty and less money-dependent and toxic lifestyles. Today’s cultural commons have many of the characteristics of the communities of the Luddites in early nineteenth-century England, which were destroyed by the first Industrial Revolution, which has now entered its digital phase of globalization. Unfortunately, the diversity of the world’s cultural commons is being undermined by the digital revolution that Friedman views as so promising.
Print-Based Knowledge and Communication Contribute to Linguistic Colonization
Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and Eric Havelock have written extensively about the ways that print, given different cultural variables, leads to a form of consciousness different from that experienced in oral cultures. One of the key differences is that print-based knowledge, in not being able to accurately represent the flow of events and tacit understanding of local contexts, leads to a superficial knowledge of events, ideas, and experiences. Reliance on the senses, memory, and culturally acquired tacit understandings is more likely to be context-dependent. That is, for all its other advantages, print fosters abstract thinking that cannot take account of the depth of the culturally mediated experiences that exist in local contexts. For example, online courses require learning a way of thinking about events, procedures, and issues, and then imposing these abstract understandings (usually a theory that explains relationships and procedures) on the students’ local cultural contexts. As online courses rely heavily on print as well as other abstract media, the widely held assumption that words have a universal meaning and that they name individual entities and events will be further reinforced.
Reliance on the printed word also reinforces the sender/receiver view of language (the conduit view of language that Michael Reddy writes about) that marginalizes awareness that most words are metaphors that carry forward the silences and misconceptions of earlier thinkers whose analogs continue to frame the meaning of words that are still taken for granted today. For example, the reference to “machine learning,” which is the title of the Stanford University online course taken by a hundred thousand students from different regions of the world, involves a radically different understanding of what constitutes “learning” than when this metaphor is used in other cultures. The privileging of print-based knowledge and communication over oral traditions also leads to abstract thinking in which there is no accountability between the use of the West’s context-free metaphors—such as “freedom,” “democracy,” “free markets,” “progress,” and “individualism”––and the ecology of languages of other cultures. The West’s context-free metaphors, which are so easily presented in print, have been used to justify both military and commercial forms of cultural imperialism.
What the computer scientists and technologists who write the computer programs are not likely to have encountered in their own education is that words are metaphors, and that the printed word gives few clues to how it’s supposed current meanings were framed in the past by people who settled on analogs that are still carried forward and have become part of the computer scientists’ taken-for-granted interpretative frameworks. This process of socialization should be understood as the linguistic colonization of the present by the past, which is largely ignored because of the many ways people have been indoctrinated with the belief that they are autonomous thinkers. These misconceptions are further reinforced when what is learned in an online course is encoded in print, in videos that are also abstractions from the world of living cultural and natural ecologies, and by the cultural amplifications and reductions that are inherent characteristics of computers. And when the mode of abstract representation (i.e., print, visual, auditory) becomes the basis of thinking for students from non-Western cultures, the online course, taught in whichever Western language, becomes a form of cultural colonization. As most computer programmers ignore this characteristic of the printed word, there are few instances in which the content of the online course challenges students to consider the cultural differences in the meaning of words. Instead of reflecting on the cultural ecology of the vocabulary and other abstract visual images appearing on the screen, the student is more likely to consider them as factual and objective representations of how to think about reality––especially when the online course is part of a degree program offered by universities such as Stanford, MIT, and other elite institutions.
How Abstract Systems of Representation Undermine Our Ecological Intelligence
As Ong and other linguists focusing on the differences between orality and literacy have pointed out, the idea that print-based knowledge and communication are more accurate and objective also reinforces the privileging of sight over the other senses––which in turn strengthens the idea of being an autonomous individual who sees, thinks, and acts. Indeed, one of the arguments used to promote the wider use of computers in education is that they provide access to data, information, and accounts that far exceeds what the classroom teacher or professor can bring to the student’s learning experience. The further claim for computer-mediated learning is that it adds to the ability of students to construct their own knowledge––which is an argument that fails to consider that students’ thought processes are largely dependent on the metaphorical vocabulary they acquire when becoming a member of a language community. During the early stages of language acquisition, the child is vulnerable to accepting word meanings (metaphors) that carry forward the misconceptions, insights, and silences of the people whose analogs continue to frame those meanings. As this process of learning is largely taken for granted, few attend to the way that the history of words reproduces earlier ways of thinking that do not take into account the current cultural and natural ecologies that vary in terms of ethnic groups, bioregions, and metanarratives. To summarize the key misconception reinforced by the privileging of the abstract knowledge encoded in print, it is that there is such an entity as an autonomous thinker and actor. This culturally specific assumption and the assumption about the objective nature of knowledge communicated through print are likely to be reinforced across the courses made available as part of an online degree.
The reality, as Gregory Bateson points out, is that everything exists in relationships with other participants in cultural and natural ecologies. That is, individuals, plants, animals, genes, macroclimate systems, and so forth always exist in complex and interdependent communications systems we call ecologies. The printed word is unable to represent the dynamic, interactive, and ongoing communication of information that Bateson suggests can be understood as the “difference which makes a difference” circulating through all ecologies. What Bateson is arguing is that “differences,” especially when we are aware of them, lead to differences in our response, which in turn lead to differences to which other participants, ranging from genes to macroecosystems, in the cultural and natural ecology respond to––in an ongoing process. The assumption that things exist in some kind of an autonomous status or as fixed entities—represented in the assumption that there are independent facts, objective data, and events that can be understood as separate from the differences which make a difference circulating through interactive ecologies—is also reinforced through print-encoded knowledge. What students are not likely to learn in these online courses is how to recognize how the language that is the basis of their taken-for-granted patterns of thinking fails to accurately represent the cultural and natural ecological systems in which they are embedded. And it is unlikely that any of the online courses, even those created by scholars with international reputations, will challenge students to identify new culturally and ecologically informed analogs that will overcome the problem of how words (metaphors) continue to reproduce earlier culturally specific misconceptions and silences. For example, how many students from other cultures who are in the early stages of learning English are going to be aware that the current meanings of such pervasively used metaphors as “freedom,” “individualism,” “progress,” “data,” “technology,” “development,” were framed in earlier eras when there was no awareness of environmental limits? The ethnocentrism of these earlier eras is also reproduced in the current use of these metaphors.
Playing tennis, preparing a soufflé, writing a paragraph, talking with a stranger or friend, planting a garden, deciding how to dress given a change in the weather, going to war, performing in an orchestra, promoting social reforms, and introducing a new technology such as literacy or computers all involve varying degrees of awareness of differences––that is, the information already being exchanged within the local and macronatural and cultural ecologies. The conceptual maps acquired from print-based learning, that is, abstract learning reinforced in these online courses, undermine the ability to give full attention to the differences (information circulating, as Foucault would put it, as an “action upon an action” of the Other)––which in turn introduces differences that make a difference within the interactive fields of relationships. This results in the introduction of policies, procedures, and technologies that are often poorly suited to the local characteristics of different natural and cultural ecologies. A good example of the failure of abstract thinking on the part of highly literate and thus abstract-thinking politicians is the way the borders of countries were established during the colonial era. Their decisions failed to take into account local contexts (cultural and natural ecologies)––that is, the tribal and religious groups holding opposing ideas that have now become the basis of today’s political conflicts. This can also be seen in the development of infrastructure systems that have failed to take into account the cultural practices of local communities––freeways and the location of centers of political power would be prime examples.
Computer-driven technologies that displace the need for workers, who are needed by the economic system to consume what can now be more efficiently produced, provide yet another example of how abstract thinking, rather than ecological thinking, leads to double binds that have dire social consequences.
What is not likely to be understood by the people who turn the knowledge of various disciplines into online courses is that the vocabulary (again, context-free printed words) used in a course influences which differences that make a difference will become the focus of the student’s attention and will thus be taken into account in the student’s response. To make this point more directly, a vocabulary that reinforces the misconception of being an autonomous, rationally directed individual will lead to a person-centered form of ecological intelligence in which the only differences that make a difference to be taken into account will be those related to the individual’s personal agenda.
For example, the person trying to find the opening on the flow of traffic that will allow getting ahead of other drivers gives attention and responds to a limited set of differences: the space between the cars in the lane the person wants to move into, the speed of the slower vehicle just ahead, the weather conditions, and so forth. This person-centered exercise of ecological intelligence does not take account of potential destructive impact on others or on the natural systems that result from driving a car with a high carbon footprint. An online course, in reinforcing the Western assumption that what is learned adds to the individual’s capacity to be an autonomous rational thinker, further contributes to a society that is unable to recognize that the Western view of the autonomous individual is partly at the root of the ecological crisis. When few professors outside the sciences take the ecological crisis seriously enough to examine how their own courses reinforce the same deep cultural assumptions that contribute to overshooting the sustaining capacity of natural systems, their behavior further ensures that online courses will be able to address only technological solutions caused by cultural assumptions that are little understood. Unfortunately, the education of most scientists is also limiting in that it failed to address how print reinforces abstract thinking and thus limits the exercise of ecological intelligence. Perhaps more important, the education of most scientists failed to introduce them to the understanding that metaphorical language reproduces the misconceptions of earlier eras, which can be seen in how their culturally dictated understanding of progress has precluded them from considering the importance of what their new technologies are displacing.
What Is Lost Through Computer-Mediated Learning
Friedman refers to the dawning of the era of Internet university degrees in metaphors that make questioning the “revolutionary” developments of Professor Ng and other proponents of online degrees appear reactionary. Isn’t it sheer ignorance to question what Friedman refers to as the “top quality” and “world class” learning that will be made available by the professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and other elite universities?
What is too often overlooked because of the late twentieth-century education of most professors who will write these supposedly world-class online courses is the simple insight of the late Theodore Roszak, who noted that the basic relationship in computer-mediated learning is the mind of the student meeting the minds of the people who write the software. While the professor writing the online course may have an outstanding scholarly record, that professor will too often reproduce the silences and misconceptions shared within the discipline, as well as the taken-for-granted language and thus the culturally specific root metaphors that have guided the process of modernization and now globalization.
What continues to be overlooked is that the graduates of these elite universities have become the power brokers on Wall Street and the foreign policy experts who have sent the youth of the middle and poorer classes into one war after another. To date, the graduates of these elite universities continue to promote economic globalization and the further development of technologies that reduce the need for workers. Their understanding of what constitutes progress and wealth, which is driven largely by abstract ideologies inherited from the print-based thinking of earlier Western thinkers, is in many instances the basis of social policies that are contributing to the spread of poverty and the further degradation of natural systems.
While Friedman celebrates the way that the elite universities will package and make available their high-status knowledge, the real problems that will dominate the lives of students from all regions of the world will be the deepening ecological crisis that is already threatening sources of protein and potable water, causing changes in habitats, and increasing disruptions in civil society as the forces of economic globalization further undermine the life-sustaining ability of natural systems. How many computer scientists such as Professor Ng, and how many of the social science and humanities faculty at these elite universities, are aware of how their thinking is based on many of the same deep, taken-for-granted cultural assumptions that provided conceptual and moral legitimacy for the industrial culture that is still being promoted as the engine of progress? Asking the same questions about the misconceptions, silences, and cultural colonization that are part of any regular face-to-face class that also involves textbooks, which will be magnified by a largely print-based online course of study, brings into focus the highly problematic nature of Friedman’s claim of a world-class education, as well as that of his claim that the online revolution in higher education represents the best that the elite universities have to offer.
Who Will Receive the Monetary Benefits from Online Courses?
The economy of scale appears to benefit the students (who obtain credit for completing a low-cost online course), the universities that own the copyright, as well as the corporations that maintain the online delivery. In other words, huge profits are to be made. Given Professor Ng’s example of offering a course taken by 100,000 students, and the claim that already over a million students have taken other online courses, it’s clear that economic forces will soon lead university administrators to terminate unpopular programs and to reduce the number of campus-based faculty.
Will the profits from the new system be made available in the form of a safety net for those faculty who have been dismissed as redundant? Will the faculty member who creates the online course receive fair compensation, or will the salary paid during the time it took to create the online course be considered adequate? And what should be the response of faculty unions to the challenges posed by turning online university degrees into a new large and highly profitable industry? Their response will likely focus on economic issues, as few faculty possess the conceptual background necessary for challenging the threat posed by the inherent culturally mediating characteristics of computers to further undermine the development of ecological intelligence needed in the years ahead.
Another question that has yet to be answered is how many faculty members will be able to raise equally critical questions about the ways that online courses, especially those taught in English, undermine cultures that have survived in harsh environments by developing ecological intelligence and encoding it in their languages. Instead of engaging faculty in the computer sciences about the forms of knowledge and skill development that cannot be acquired from an online course, the dominant mood among faculty is more like the frog that fails to recognize the dangers of sitting in a pot that is heating up. When university administrators decide that online courses create more revenue than departments with declining enrollments and tenure can no longer protect the faculty from being laid off, it will be (as with the frog in the boiling water) too late.
Friedman holds out the promise that the delivery systems in this emerging era of online degrees will enable students in different regions of the world to encounter the best minds that the elite universities have to offer. But there is little evidence that these world-class faculty members understand the nature and ecological importance of the world’s diversity of cultural commons and how they are being undermined by computer-mediated learning. Would they be able to engage computer science faculty in an extended discussion of the printed word’s inherent ethnocentricity and its reproduction of the deep cultural assumptions that are partly at the root of the ecological crisis? Would they be able to clarify why the spoken word, communal memory, and reliance on all the senses as sources of information have enabled some cultures to develop ecologically sustainable daily practices? The even more difficult challenge would be to engage computer science faculty in a way that would facilitate their openness to learning what they do not know. The combination of specialized languages and the hubris that comes with promoting cutting-edge technologies makes interdisciplinary exchanges exceedingly difficult.
The one point that faculty in the social sciences and humanities would be able to make is that online courses, unlike courses with similar course titles that provide students with a wide range of interpretations, would promote the interpretation of the professor or expert who prescribes what the course content should be. Economic and technological factors will dictate that the course content be free of ambiguities and alternative interpretations that would limit the ability to machine-score the students’ performance. This, in turn, raises the question of whether computer science faculty understand the dangers of courses that promote a monocultural mentality, and whether university administrators will be able to resist the economic benefits of offering the same online course over and over again.
Moral Double-Binds Produced by the Industrialization of Higher Education
As it becomes clearer to students that obtaining an online degree from a major university both provides the credential they need for competing for employment in an economy that needs fewer workers and also leaves them facing the uncertainties of employment with a smaller burden of debt, traditional universities will likely face rapidly declining enrollments. This, in turn, will confront faculty, especially in departments whose curricula do not relate directly to promoting economic and technological development, with a moral double bind. That is, in order to avoid the dismissal of faculty in departments that have declining enrollments, faculty members have traditionally encouraged students to pursue academic interests that align with the interests of the faculty. The encouragement has usually been accompanied by vague assurances that the graduate student’s years of study will be rewarded with some form of employment in higher education. The vagueness of this promise will now disappear as the stark reality of widespread unemployment among faculty can no longer be denied.
As a result the faculty will face this moral issue: Do they continue to encourage students to pursue graduate study in their department (which will help to preserve their own jobs), or do they warn students that their years of study may not be rewarded with future employment in a field related to their specialized area of study? Some students may be willing to pursue their intellectual interests regardless of future economic consequences. But it is likely that more students will elect to adapt their intellectual interests to what will enable them to earn a living––which will lead to a decline in student enrollments followed by administrative decisions to reduce the number of faculty or to cancel programs entirely. In the background will be the reality that the institution’s budget will be expanding as more students adopt the online route to a university degree.
A Slippery Political Slope
We are reminded daily that most computer scientists––like their colleagues in the sciences whose students reproduce the silences of their mentors by working for a chemical industry that produces billions of pounds of pesticides and other toxins each year––give little thought to the cultural and ecological consequences that ripple outward from their latest technological innovations. Their education is too specialized to engage in any in-depth examination of the moral and political implications of the technologies that are reducing the need for workers, and these technologies are bringing the lives of everyone under the surveillance networks that benefit corporations and the growing fascist tendencies of government to monitor people’s activities in order to anticipate crimes and acts of disloyalty. These issues are not likely to be addressed by the “world class” professors who will be developing online curricula in the sciences and related technology fields.
There is another problem that also needs to be considered as more students sign up for online degrees in order to avoid a life of crushing indebtedness. As demonstrated by the Stanford University example of tens of thousands of students taking the same course, and as we are learning about the government’s massive surveillance of people’s everyday activities, taking an online course leads to more than a grade based on a machine-scored test. It also provides others, ranging from the government to potential employers and even other citizens, a record of the ideas students encounter in the online courses––as well as their performance. If an employer wants to hire a graduate of an online program from one of the elite universities and the data reveal that the content of one of the courses included exposure to Keynesian economics and a critique of capitalism, it is very likely that the student will not be hired––regardless of what the student has come to think about the merits of Keynesian economics and the merits of capitalism.
Similarly, if students were to protest in Luddite fashion the further industrialization of their educational experience, this too would become part of the data-based profile of the student’s character and potential for politically disruptive behavior. Just as we are now awash in the thousands of toxic chemicals introduced into the environment by scientists in the name of progress, we are also awash in data that represents highly abstracted evidence of people’s thoughts and actions––again, in the name of progress. Without the benefit of knowing the context out of which the data are derived and the individual’s own explanations, people making decisions about employment, security risks, loans for housing, and other activities will impose their own ideological biases on what the data means. The wrong kind of data, or an irresponsible interpretation of the data, now serve as an indictment, especially when ideological, ethnic, and religious issues become part of interpreting what the data means. Unlike the old system of being able to defend oneself, being able to question the evidence that is the basis of the indictment, and being judged by a jury of peers, the new online system will lead to politically and economically adverse decisions that will never reach the courtroom, where the old safeguards still survive. As the late eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham understood, in a panopticon-designed prison where everyone is under constant surveillance, the prisoners will begin to self-police their own actions. This same phenomenon of self-policing will become more widespread as computer-mediated activities lead to the massive accumulation of data to be used by anonymous others in centers of power.
For all of these reasons, we need to be wary of pundits such as Friedman who obfuscate the complexity of changes in an ecologically stressed and multicultural world. By extolling of the industrialization of education with god-words such as “breakthroughs,” “hyperconnected,” “revolutionary,” they position themselves on the side of the winners in the process of economic and technological globalization.