My Turn: Quality higher education

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

With the Internet and modern technology, there is a real "push" in post-secondary education for "distance delivery" and the use of part-time teachers and professors. Why? Because these methods are less expensive and more cost-productive. Part-time faculty are paid less and receive fewer benefits than do full-time teachers.

I am not opposed to using part-time or "adjunct" professors because some bring with them the knowledge and experience they have acquired both within and outside of traditional "academia." But to replace full-time teachers simply for less expensive teachers may, in the long run, reduce the quality of post-secondary education.

There may be some skills that one can learn through correspondence courses, distance delivery and the Internet. But in some cases, students need a real person, to work with face-to-face in their studies. For example, several unions have excellent training programs for one to become a plumber, electrician, equipment operator or carpenter. Their instructors have to be people with knowledge and experience, who are right there observing and checking on what the students do. You can't learn to be a good welder or brain surgeon via the Internet.

In other areas such as the natural sciences, mathematics, literature, art, social studies and business, it is the same. Years ago, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his books "The Silent Language" and "The Hidden Dimension," pointed out that there is a whole world of non-verbal communication. There is "body language," dress, gestures and use of time, that are all part of the total communication between human beings, as with many other animals in this world.

I have spent most of my adult life as a teacher, in the traditional class setting - in a classroom where I see the students and they see me. We communicate on many different levels and not just through printed words or listening to each other through a limited audio program. As I look at the students, at times I see eyes lighting up, frowns or puzzled looks on faces and know that ideas are being exchanged, whether they are understood or not. I try to respond to these communications. I'm sure students look at me, and my "performance," and have their own reaction. They can question or accept not just my words, but my non-verbal message as well.

In the past few years I have been asked to teach some courses by audio conference ("distance delivery") and to some extent it has worked, but not as well as the old person-to-person classroom. As an instructor in these courses, I never knew if the students were paying any attention to what I said, I could not sense that they were awakening to something, balancing their checkbooks or playing a game on their computer. They didn't know if I was eating a sandwich and just talking, truly laying out all that I had learned and experienced in life or reading from script in front of me.

Yes, there are less expensive ways to deliver what is called post-secondary education, but like many less expensive things in life, is the quality there? Is it real education or a cheaper knock off of what post-secondary education should be? Is the least expensive always equal?

• Wallace M. Olson is a professor of anthropology (emeritus) at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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