DISTANCE LEARNING AND THE DEMISE OF THE PROFESSORIATE
David Van Nuys
Psychology Department
Sonoma State University

When I heard that the CSU is about to embrace something known as "Distance Learning," I was initially excited. It struck me as something that would fit right in with my own thrust. For the past four or five years, I have been teaching a course titled, Computer Applications in Psychology, and I've been fantasizing most of that time about ways to take greater advantage of the Internet in the educational process. Current estimates suggest that about 13 million people around the globe can be reached through the Internet, not to mention countless libraries, databases, and other sorts of resources.

Surely, I thought, this technological capability must be pregnant with powerful learning opportunities for students to conduct their own independent or directed learning by dialoging with others around the world. I see the possibilities for structuring meaningful exchanges between students and their peers from different universities and cultures, as well as dialogues with experts who might be difficult for students to access through other channels.

You can see why the phrase "Distance Learning" would strike a resonant chord in me. Add to this, the fact that I have always been a knee-jerk technophile. A ham radio operator throughout my teens and, later, a scholarship winner in electrical engineering, electronic communication gear and gadgetry of all sorts have been a powerful magnet for me all my life.

I have indulged myself in sharing this bit of personal background so that the reader will understand that the critical remarks which follow are not the ranting of a reflexive technophobe. Quite the contrary. In fact, it comes as a shock to me, and those that know me, to find myself more and more dwelling on the dark side of technology, generally, and, now, "Distance Learning," specifically.

It should be self-evident that technology has had and is having a massive impact upon our personal lives, our culture, our planet. What we have imagined, we have created. As Jerry Mander (In The Absence of The Sacred) puts it, "Living constantly inside an environment of our own invention, reacting solely to things we ourselves have created, we are essentially living inside our own minds." According to Langdon Winner (The Whale and The Reactor) we are living in a state of "technological somnambulism." Like sleepwalkers, we are being driven by the twin engines of technology and corporate economics to we know not where. It seems that if something is technologically possible, it is inevitable. As Mander observes, "Saying no to a technology, any technology, was (and still is) beyond us. Virtually unthinkable. It does not even occur to most of us that we have the right or ability to turn back a whole technology. No precedent and no support exists for it in our culture."

OK. Let's cut to the chase. Upon reflection, my initial enthusiasm for "Distance Learning" has turned to profound concern. The CSU is "inviting" faculty to submit proposals and to launch other sorts of initiatives exploring "Distance Learning."

I fear we are being asked to dig our own graves.

The library and the faculty have traditionally formed the core of the university. Imagine a scenario, however, in which there is computerized access to all library materials and video access to lectures by the best faculty in the nation, if not the world. (Are you as good a lecturer as a James Burke, Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell, or Tom Peters, for example?) Furthermore, imagine standardized national exams in virtually every subject. You've just eliminated the major costs associated with a physical plant (libraries, dorms, dining halls, parking lots, playing fields, lakes, trees, real estate) and most of the costs of faculty, deans, student affairs, health centers, athletic programs, and so on.

These things are nice, but not necessary in this minimal specification of the university of the future. Will they need faculty? I think many will conclude that far fewer will be required, if any.

Just as Walmart, Costco, Price Club et al have discovered that they don't need carpeting, escalators, wallpaper, decorations, and such... or many staff... to constitute a department store. Just as Exxon, Chevron, and Shell have discovered they don't need employees at the pump to have a gas station. Just as Bank of America has discovered that they don't have to have full-time tellers to have a bank. Just as SSU has discovered it doesn't need to hire librarians or even students to retrieve books from the stacks to have a library. We are living in a time of minimal specifications.

The pieces for this apocalyptic scenario in relation to our own bailiwick are nearly all in place. And, the proposed NWREN, the data/video superhighway, which is supported by President Clinton can only make this scenario more feasible. There are no technological impediments. It is already possible to access the card catalogs of major libraries around the globe, using a computer at home tied into the Internet with a modem. Full text retrieval, electronically, is currently limited but is accelerating rapidly. I recently used the Internet to peruse the full text of Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland from my desktop at home. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

What's missing? Imagine that there is a standardized exam for every course required to get a B.A. degree. Then all you need for your minimal university is sell students access to the network and to provide for examination/certification. Now, vast armies of students would be able to study at home, take the necessary exams, and move up the educational ladder at their own pace, seeking such tutoring or hands-on experience as is needed along the way. In addition, of course, students can be in touch with other students electronically for whatever benefits and stimulation interaction with one's peers provides and they, presumably, would have some access to a small cadre of electronic "faculty," as well. These faculty might also be part-timers (therefore, ineligible for benefits) who are able to supervise work from home, electronically.

I think I have pretty well outlined the specification for what we might call Costco U., the minimal university-- no physical library needed, no duck pond needed, no dorms needed, no parking lots, no Public Safety department, etc. Little or no faculty needed.

If this scenario seems farfetched, consider the following three "talking" points (out of 15 of similar import) taken from a recent document out of Sacramento, "The Master Plan in Focus: Discussion Paper on Faculty, Instruction, and Research."

One can expect that the arguments in support of such moves will be clothed in reasonable and politically-correct terms, emphasizing wider, more democratic access to educational opportunity, the necessary dismantling of a medieval, elitist institution, and so on. At root, however, it will be about taking advantage of technology to get the job done cheaper.

The headlines of the past few years could not be any clearer than handwriting on the wall. The tale is one of massive losses of jobs in industry after industry, arguably a fallout of technology. The battering ram of automation is about to beat upon the gates of our Ivory Tower.

What will be lost in the process? Only our jobs? Or something about the quality of life, not only for ourselves, but for our students and our nation?

As Langdon Winner says, "The technological world of the twenty-first century becons. Will it be better than the one we now inhabit, or worse?... And whose interests will be decisive?"

As professors, we are going to have to address some very difficult decisions, both personally and collectively. Does self-interest demand that we not dig our own graves, that we refuse to add our own skills and energies to the development of "distance learning?" Beyond our own self-interest, are there sound pedagogical reasons to defend the traditional academy, more or less as we have known it? Or does our professionalism demand that we rise above self-interest, helping to invent and implement a system that will eventually put us out of work?


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DVN 4/24/95