On-line universities (OLUs) look much different than traditional bricks-and-mortar universities (TBAMUs). First, they lack physical campuses including classrooms, residence halls, libraries, fraternities and sororities, and athletic teams, although some have single buildings or suites in office buildings, scattered across the country like banks or fast food franchises. Second, they are for-profit businesses whose primary goal is to make a profit for owners or stock holders. Third, they make heavy use of part-time or adjunct faculty who typically hold other full-time jobs. These instructors tend to be more practical and less idealistic but, unlike the full-time faculty members at TBAMUs, do not usually devote their professional lives to studying, researching, and teaching their chosen field. Finally, being profit-driven, they market themselves more aggressively, accept virtually all applicants who can pay the tuition, aggressively help applicants obtain tuition loans, sell college credits for life experiences, permit students to re-take failed exams, and help students obtain 4-year degrees in as little as 1½ or 2 years.
At for-profit OLUs, grades are grossly inflated, giving even the weakest students the feeling that they have finally arrived at a place that understands them and recognizes their “true abilities”. Student weaknesses in math, reading, and spelling, as well as a general lack of knowledge, are downplayed as being unimportant. Much like rats in a Skinner Box, they continue to pay tuition to gain high grades and a degree as repeated affirmation that they are the equal of any successful student at TBAMUs. When asked, the on-line students adamantly defend their on-line education, even though they usually do not have the experience to actually compare it to a TBAMU experience.
It is instructive to consider the very clever Kaplan University TV commercial in which an actor plays the role of a distinguished professor at a TBAMU. In the ad, the actor/professor apologizes to all of the students in his audience for his university’s old-fashioned educational practices, and then promises to take a more modern, more relevant, ostensibly better approach from now on. To all those viewers who have not done well in school, who do not have the attention span to stay focused on lectures or read textbooks, or whose lifestyle makes it difficult to sustain their studies at a TBAMU, this ad offers them hope that they can succeed in school, get a college degree, gain access to good occupations, and have successful careers. At all levels of education, testing and grading practices are subjective, variable, and ambiguous enough that it is easy to toy with people’s perceptions. If the endeavor were the 100 meter dash, the results would be much clearer because a good stopwatch doesn’t lie. After a few slow races, an individual would know that the training regimen, which promised world-class times and Olympic medals, was making false claims. In the world of higher education, I routinely meet graduates of OLUs who had 3.8 and 4.0 cumulative GPAs and are completely unaware that their scholastic skills are below the level of the average high school graduate.
Priceless TBAMU Life Lessons: Hard to Replicate at OLUs
I have taken on-line continuing education courses that seemed entirely appropriate in the format they were offered. I must admit, that I was typically able to review the multiple choice exam first, skim the reading materials, and then answer all of the unchallenging questions with ease. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a place for some on-line coursework in both undergraduate and graduate education. But, to get any degree with all, or virtually all, on-line courses would detract from one’s experience and possibly result in uneducated graduates. In thinking about the various courses I have taken in my nine years as a student at three universities, I came up with a long list of courses and related experiences that could not be matched by on-line study. Here is a partial list of those experiences:
University of Pittsburgh, freshman year, Professor Buckwalter’s intro to geology course. A field trip by bus, an hour or so outside the city. We chipped sedimentary rock on the bank of a river, collecting fossils from varying layers of rock. I understood right then and there that Evolution was no longer just a “theory”. It was a fact. This educational experience shaped my beliefs and made it hard for me to allow that “Intelligent Design” should be included in grade school science textbooks.
Pitt, sophomore year, Professor Stern’s interdisciplinary humanities course. Showed slide of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and practically sang and beamed with enthusiasm as he pointed out the symbolism and the magnificent shade of blue. I did not share his enthusiasm at that time, but something significant was imprinted in me. 40 years later, as I strolled with my wife through the Uffizi, I was drawn to Boticelli’s masterpiece and noticed the rainbow of national origins crowding in to take a look. It was then that I realized that great works of art are threads that connect people of all nationalities and generations as they share aesthetic experiences.
Pitt, junior year, Professor Levitt’s physiological psychology course. Sitting next to another psych major, Alan, who always got better grades than me in the many psych courses we took together. After class, I asked how he managed to earn such good grades and he described his impressive study methods. I realized that I would have to step-up my effort to compete for admission to a good Ph.D. program. He invited me to join a study group of other similarly motivated psych majors, and this led to sharper focus, higher grades, and eventually, my Ph.D. My fellow students in almost every course I have ever taken have been a source of valuable information, insights, competition and friendship. This can't occur at an OLU because you don't have this kind of interaction with classmates when everything is on-line.
Pitt, junior year. The study group members were talking about finding a psych professor who would allow us to assist with his/her research. This extra work would demonstrate strong interest, initiative and commitment, help me learn more about psychological research, and establish a relationship with a professor who could write a good letter of recommendation for grad school. After knocking on almost every psych professor’s office door and being told that they needed no more research assistants, I approached Dr. Voss whom I had heard was very tough and intimidating. I did not find him to be anything but gracious and helpful, and he gave me some significant work to do under his supervision and that of another psychologist, Dr. Janus. I put subjects through an experimental verbal memory procedure, tabulated and statistically analyzed the data, and wrote a draft of the article which was eventually published. What great preparation for my master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation, and research publications in my future.
Teachers College, Columbia University, first year of master’s program in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling, Professor I. I. Goldberg’s psychological aspects of disability course. Dr. Goldberg was a brilliant, warm-hearted hulk of a man who spoke with an eastern European accent and who had only one arm. Every class involved exposure to another type of disability. Sometimes a person with a severe orthopedic disability, or a neurological disability, or a hearing impairment was invited to class to demonstrate the ingenious methods and persistent effort he/she used to accomplish everyday tasks such as eating, grooming, or using the telephone. In other classes we would simulate our own disability by walking through the Horace Mann Building with blindfolds and white canes or maneuvering in a wheelchair. The experiences took me far beyond the lectures, textbooks, and research papers that were also required.
Ohio State University, second year of Ph.D. program in Counseling Psychology, Professor George Taylor’s course on group therapy. Class size was limited to 12 students. There were no lectures. Each class was like a group therapy session with Dr. Taylor as the facilitator. He set the stage for productive group process, sometimes asking us to participate in structured activities. As we experienced all of the phenomena that occur in therapy groups, Dr. Taylor provided both commentary on the process and an excellent model of how to be a group therapist. During the 30 years following my graduation from Ohio State, I taught about 30 sections of a similar graduate-level course at two universities, delighting in seeing my students learn about themselves and the beautiful way in which groups of people can evolve into helping, compassionate, and growth-producing entities. I was shocked to hear that some psychology graduate programs now offer this course on-line. What a sad turn of events for the students, their future patients, and my beloved profession!
Ohio State, second year. As a teaching associate, I taught three sections of Psychology of Personal Effectiveness, which was actually a study skills course. Along with four fellow grad students, I taught this course under the supervision of Dr. Francis P. Robinson, the developer of the SQ3R study method and author of our textbook, Effective Study. The five of us met once per week in Dr. Robinson’s seminar, learned some of the finer points of how to teach, the details of the SQ3R method, and the research behind it. I was very nervous for the first couple of classes, but I quickly became more confident and really enjoyed teaching. For most of the years since, I have been a professor at three different universities. It never occurred to me that I would want to be a university professor when I chose to attend graduate school to become a psychologist. I doubt I would have made this choice if I didn’t have this outstanding experience at a TBAMU.
The above seven experiences were just a small portion of the many that rounded out my education. None of them could have occurred without having great professors who devote their lives to academia. Many of these experiences depended on having direct contact, competition, and cooperation with fellow students who knew more than me. None of them would be possible had I logged-on to courses in an exclusively OLU. I believe every TBAMU student has similar priceless experiences, some subtle and some profound. I believe students have far fewer of these critical experiences at for-profit OLUs and this would seriously diminish the world in which our graduates live, work, create, and educate future generations.