This Isn’t Just an Experiment in Education. It’s a Test of Our Democracy, Too.

tags: higher education, technology, teaching history, online learning, educational equity

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America."

Jonathan Zimmerman's remarks appeared as part of a round table on the potential impact of the coronavirus outbreak on online teaching and learning.


I am an historian; I study dead people. So I’m always a bit reluctant to make any predications about the future. I’ve got my hands full making sense of the past.

But here’s what I can tell you: our current moment has no precedent--none--in the history of American higher education. Since the advent of television in the 1950s, new technologies have been advertised as a way to provide “mass education” (as Cold War leaders called it) to the millions of new faces streaming into our colleges and universities. These institutions had been formed to serve a very small number of white, well-to-do men. But they had evolved into behemoths of diversity, enlisting working-class military veterans (who made up half of undergraduate students by 1947) and, eventually, almost anyone who could scrap together enough tuition or financial aid to attend.

Technology would allow the universities to integrate these new populations, or so enthusiasts proclaimed. According to the vice president of the Ford Foundation, which invested millions in educational television, TV would “make the greatest teachers of the age... available to everyone.” At Harvard, meanwhile, psychologist B. F. Skinner promised to replace teachers altogether. “The number of people in the world who want an education is increasing at an almost explosive rate,” Skinner warned. “It will not be possible to give these people what they want by building more schools and training more teachers.” Skinner’s answer was the “teaching machine,” which he developed at Harvard and briefly used to instruct one of his own courses. It was a box-like contraption exhibiting questions that students would answer, getting rewarded (Skinner’s favorite term) for every correct response.

Skinner’s students were lukewarm in their evaluations of his teaching machine, but one of them also predicted that it would “have a revolutionary effect” outside of Harvard Yard. And that was the whole point, of course. The new machines weren’t created for elites, who would always have access to the best kinds of education that America could offer. Technology was for everyone else, providing a facsimile of face-to-face instruction at a fraction of the cost.

That’s what online education has been, for the most part. Consider my own university, which recently began the Ivy League’s first fully online undergraduate degree. It’s aimed at--surprise!--working and nontraditional students, who often can’t get to campus and also can’t afford our sticker price. It was barely noticed by our regular students, who get their education the old-fashioned way: in the classroom. Now, for the first time, they won’t. They’re going to be thrown into the same big pot as everyone else. An intervention designed to serve the masses is now going to be foisted on the (upper) classes.

This isn’t just an experiment in education. It’s a test of our democracy, too.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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