State-Mandated Online Degree Programs: The Threats to Real Learning, True Access, Employability, Citizenship, and National Security (Boak Ferris)


Guest blogger Boak Ferris, author of the e-textbook Think and Rethink, is a former test-coordinator, current 30-year faculty member, and writer at CSU Long Beach.

State-Mandated Online Degree Programs:

The Threats to Real Learning, True Access, Employability, Citizenship, and National Security

States, governors, universities, in their rush to provide ostensible “increased educational access”—but more likely to cut education costs—are speeding out of control downhill to mandate that universities generate online degree programs and online credit-satisfying courses.  Downhill is the operant term, as advocates of these programs have not fully analyzed the risks and dangers, first, to the overall quality of American life and education, second, to the American spirit of innovation, independence, and creativity, and third, to American public safety.  Also at risk are our national reputation as the world leader in quality secondary education, our historic democratic compassion in granting one-on-one access between any student and a specialist/experienced educator, our intentions to maintain a civilized public body, and indeed, our national security.  Until certain urgent issues are addressed, and solved, educational policymakers must exercise restraint in establishing mandated online degree programs.

First, educators in a classroom play a much greater role than rambling about specialized stuff.  Recent neuroscience research and breakthroughs have demonstrated that human learning is a motor process. Even learning abstract subjects is best anchored in pedagogies that require students to engage motor processes.  The most lasting learning takes place when students can watch, in person, an expert model the skills and leverage disciplinary knowledge expected to be applied in a specific profession.  Students also need to demonstrate, via writing or speaking, their evolving acquisition of these skills and knowledge. It’s more than spectating during an online presentation on how to do something.  A live, present student can immediately ask a live, present expert about obstacles and roadblocks confronting the learning process.  These golden opportunities to rapidly learn and spontaneously engage diminish when students do not share the same loci as their experts.  Of equal value are the opportunities for students to observe the application of motor skills and analytical methods from outside their elected fields of study, via general education electives, so that they can learn to cross-associate the best that other disciplines offer to the standard sets of skills they will eventually need in their chosen professions.  Thus, American education in a physical classroom involves a democratic—and professionally socializing—process, some or much of which must be lost, if students become more like agreeable sheep sitting at distant computer monitors.

High school students often arrive to college too passive.  Critical thinking skills have all but disappeared, as college professors around the country have written about and can attest.  Perhaps the passivity is a natural artifact of media-device addiction coupled with a state of permanent hypnosis produced by obsessing over national testing standards on so-called facts.  Still, the freedom to speak with, and challenge, a physically present professional has drawn invested students from all over the world to matriculate in American universities.  But imagine the possibility, if badly designed online courses, with untold numbers of enrolled students, end up mechanically providing inflexible course curricula.  Consider the possibility that very little distance exists between a blanket standardization of curriculum across a variety of degree-granting institutions and institutionalized fascism of university content overseen by a few CEO/CFO administrators who may have little to no successful in-class teaching and improvisatory experience.

Also, once faculty become disinvested from curricular decisions, and once cross-applicable, broad-spectrum knowledge, academic and pre-professional experience, and artistic skills (i.e., outside-the-box innovation) are considered “irrelevant” or separable by the interests of private investors and “education vendors,” then American education becomes solely a capitalistic endeavor, where conflicts of interest must eventually play a sole role in driving curricular offerings and specific degree programs.  Lobbyists for investors and vendors can approach university administrators with their particular “brands” and perhaps insist on brand placement being tied to funds, resources, and the sole teaching of specific courses and disciplines and the granting of degrees.  Does an educated democratic citizen of the United States truly believe that engineers, scientists, and business students seeking degrees benefit by not having to take art or liberal arts or languages or ethics classes?  The lifeblood of science advancement depends on publication, whereby professional documentation leverages linguistic skills to yield logical and theoretical rigor.  Transferring these skills to students belongs to the purview of linguistic experts who understand how graduates must eventually learn to compensate for the limitations and irrationalities inherent in all human languages.

As an example illustrating the necessity to maintain arts and letters in a complete scientific education, consider that Galileo, a man of science, seemingly initiated the science revolution in Europe.  Indeed, Galileo worked as an experimenter and observer, leveraging his motor skills, in a 3-D space, but he also was a man of letters, who wrote up his results in order to better understand and reflect on the foreseeable hidden prejudices lurking in his analyses.  Now juxtapose Boccaccio, however, who single-handedly invented both European humanism and rationalism, thereby giving birth to and setting the ideological precedents for the Catholic-Galileo’s “scientific impulses,” by way of his literary masterpiece, The Decameron, published two hundred years before the appearance of Galileo.  In that work, the narrator implicitly challenges God’s policy of non-interference in the recent Plague.  Boccaccio’s literary, rhetorical, and comic techniques shook Europe loose from a primitive, anti-education Catholic church, by articulating an implicit call for a human-based response—requiring measured methods (rationalism) to confront the obstacle that threatened humanity’s survival.  Literary artists have always questioned and re-envisioned the causal forces of the cosmos, leading to myriad advancements in science.  Art inspires science which informs art and so-on, a mighty recursive engine of innovation.  Do budget-conscious curricular designers really wish to remove arts, literature, philosophy, and languages from a potent higher-education experience?  And to do so in a one-size-fits-all online setting?  It’s like moving from a jet engine to a one-stroke lawnmower.

Arguably, then, a true democratic top-notch education must never be tied (down) to cost-effective shortcuts-to-degrees in a country that wishes to maintain a competitive global edge.  Evolving young professionals most need a supervised domain of space and time where they can develop and practice—and cross-associate—a wide range of skills sets.

However, once policy makers blend into one pot education, curriculum, brands, testing, degrees, and money, then a Democratic American education becomes prostituted.  Money for degrees, quick and dirty, in and out the door.  These are not alarmist concerns, as some CSU’s already have corporate sponsors for different divisions and departments and colleges, whereby implicit external pressure rationalizes reducing so-called irrelevant courses, the kinds of courses that delay students toward acquiring useful rapid degrees:  humanities, art, ethics courses, music, and foreign languages curricular offerings, among others.  My own home CSU, over the last few years, has implemented similar such curricular changes and policies, with more pending, to my shame and sadness.  Such deletions may serve private institutions, but they are certainly not satisfactory for public and state universities, where students need to develop humanistic, cross-cultural, linguistic, and compassionate “citizenship” skills.  (California’s Governor Brown has not let on that he sees these dangers.)  Frankly speaking, news stories of lame-duck online programs failing have increased over the past year and a half, largely because the programs’ constituencies and clientele have not graduated nor found success, notwithstanding the rapacious and usurious financial practices associated with these programs.  To put it briefly, national employers know whom they wish to hire, and where from, and their hiring practices will serve as the ultimate certification of successful secondary institutional online degree-granting programs. Late-breaking news, as of April of 2013, shows that indeed, national employers are reluctant to hire, perhaps because they suspect that the omnipresence of online courses betokens a lack of citizenship skills in candidates.  Graduate schools will similarly screen successful candidates by undergraduate institution reputation.  If the CSU-system wishes to truly serve its students and guarantee employability, why would it want to follow these online failures?  Why would legislators admire these failures?

Note how a very strong secondary public effect intensifies and speeds student-learning, when learners “compete” and educators are present in the same physical space.  Competition to learn is also felt more keenly by candidates when they can see and hear their “classmates.”  Similarly, watching an immortal drama or a comedy or political speech in a public space shared by other thinkers responding audibly increases a spectator’s awareness and sensitivity to the nuances of art and performance and ideology. Premature babies grow faster and respond more positively when a live musician plays music in the nursery, as opposed to those infants who heard the same music piped in over loudspeakers.  Human charisma produces more impact in person, than over a television or monitor.  When tied to learning, the tangible aura of a present gifted instructor inspires students to learn faster and more enjoyably, whereas the square shape of a monitor arguably squeezes a viewer’s brain forward into an unreal and distant 2D cartoon. Neural-mapping research shows that learning among students proceeds faster and embeds longer when experienced in a shared three-dimensional visual and acoustical space.  Also, in an era where public policymakers encourage diversity, how much can diversity be respected when a threatened state-mandated curricular uniformity underlies online degree programs and courses?  Currently, localized public universities construct specialized curricula to serve students belonging to nearby populations or sub-populations, students who end up working for local industries and employers—a necessary service that may end if a “one-size-fits-all” education package is “legislated” for the sake of “consistency.”

Furthermore, “classrooms,” plural, imply the existence of neighboring classrooms, adding to the public perception of knowledge and other intangibles gained transparently.  Faculty, students, and observers walking by can witness what transpires in a public university classroom, sans any “secrecy.” The implicit transparency of democratic and public educational practices contributes to a shared sense of evolving professional responsibility among instructors, students, and visitors alike.  Public classrooms provide an arena for a “live” screening process whereby experienced instructors can directly observe students, participating, working quietly, or in teams.  The public nature of American higher education discourages and inhibits psychopaths and, to a lesser degree, sociopaths (who are more adept at hiding in plain sight), from advancing to positions of responsibility. People of aberrant psychopathology require institutionalized practices that allow them to hide, work, and advance in secrecy to further their aims. How can it not be mentioned or considered that criminals will benefit from a “knee-jerk” proliferation of online degree-granting programs?  Evil requires four little helpers to engender chaos: fear (No money!, Students will challenge the status quo!), ignorance (Is there evil?  What is it?  Let’s not learn about that.), complicity (look the other way.  Stand aside.  Institute practices to help it proliferate.), and a dark space where it multiplies unnoticed.  It also requires people in positions of authority who know better to “pretend” that evil doesn’t exist, that evil is a supernatural concern, not one of confronting everyday anti-social human behaviors.  To understand evil and its etiology means to “see it,” recognize it, interrupt and eliminate its causal factors, and thereby, leave it to a culture of the human past.

At our university, recently, we all signed mandatory intent-to-inform acts in cases where faculty suspect child abuse occurring to any of our students.  The expectation placed on our experienced judgment reflected an appropriate professional concern.  Our duties include custodianship of a free and democratic society.  But faculty and university officials will be less able to meet such duties and obligations to protect society or even to recommend candidates for professional service when all we see are “avatars”—or perhaps a single camera lens.  And note that at least one CSU intends to use students!  as faculty (called Instructional Student Assistants) in its online program(s).  As an undergraduate I would have been a good candidate to serve as an ISA running an online course for my home university—except.  Except—I had not the maturity, experience, or insight to recognize abusive personalities, to avoid their manipulations, or to deflect them back toward their assignments and academic and citizenship responsibilities.

All of the above lead to another immediate and urgent concern, which should engage Homeland Security, often overlooked in online education incentives, and which involves confirming the identities of enrolled students.  How does the instructor of record, or indeed a university administration, know if a student enrolled in online curricula is the person doing the work and achieving the degree?  Yes, high-school seniors must verify their identities and complete college-level testing to apply to and enroll in a university, but identities can be stolen or “piggy-backed” or duplicated.  Outright criminals, who need entry to professional work or graduate school, could easily “buy” an identity, and then a degree simply by hiring desperate scholars to do online work for them.  At some private universities, it’s already possible to buy a degree, i.e., without attending class—and that may be bad enough.  But the concern here centers on public universities, where policymakers should consider a graver threat.  Imagine a terror cell, wishing to infiltrate positions in government and industry, but needing advanced degrees, stealing or duplicating identities, and then hiring substitutes to attain those degrees on their behalf, so as to gain access to our citizenry—and/or to our infrastructure.  Their cause could be aided by finding at least one willing faculty member, advisor, or administrator at the university of record.  By the time employers or graduate schools found out the frauds, it might be too late.  As a former testing coordinator, I had the responsibility to address identity frauds, and I can vouch for this scenario above not being some kind of movie-fantasy.  Adequate identity and security checks for online enrolled students do not exist at this stage of our technology, especially in an era when cash-strapped state and public universities already struggle with the easily-hackable student-population management software they have available so far.  By contrast, in a physical classroom, the student of record must be present with approved student identification, which an instructor can spot-check.

These concerns, and others not listed here for lack of space, all urge taking deep responsibility, conducting thorough analysis, and engaging in cautious planning prior to enacting premature policies and legislation prior to rolling the big snowball of state-mandated online degree programs.

One Comment on “State-Mandated Online Degree Programs: The Threats to Real Learning, True Access, Employability, Citizenship, and National Security (Boak Ferris)”

  1. Thanks for sharing the valuable information,This is useful information for online learners

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