Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts

Saturday, August 29, 2020

COVID-19 is disrupting American higher education: That's a good thing

The coronavirus pandemic hit American higher education like a Cat 5 hurricane.   Virtually all colleges and universities shut their campuses down and switched from face-to-face instruction to a distance-learning format.

Many students didn't like the change and didn't like paying full tuition for a watered-down learning experience.  Lawsuits were filed. I myself was skeptical about the quality of online instruction.

However, I am teaching my second class as an adjunct professor using Zoom, and Zoom works great for me.   I can see my students on my computer screen and can talk to them directly, just as if we all were in the same room. To my surprise, I can teach via Zoom with no loss of quality.

In fact, I am beginning to think COVID-19 may be a blessing in disguise for American higher education. Here's why I take that view.

First, the latest generation of distance-learning technology (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) closes the gap between distance learning and live instruction. Colleges now have a good strategy for dealing with this pandemic and any future pandemic.

Second, COVID-19 has caused many college students to skip the dorm experience, and this shift has been a wakeup call to colleges that went on dormitory-building sprees. The change also put the brake on privately-financed, so-called luxury student housing. Privately and publicly financed student housing was out of control. All across the United States, universities are now surrounded by massive, block-housing units, which are a dispiriting blight on the landscape.

 Now that students are shying away from multiple-occupancy apartments and dorms, this speculative overbuilding has slowed down.  That is a very good thing.

Third, the massive shift of public universities to online learning has undercut the for-profit college industry, and that is also a good thing. The for-profits distinguished themselves by offering online education for working adults who could not attend classes on college campuses.  Often the quality of for-profit instruction was inferior, and for-profit colleges were almost always a lot more expensive than public colleges.

Now that the public colleges and universities have embraced distance learning, there is absolutely no reason for someone to enroll in the University of Phoenix or any other for-profit school that offers online instruction.  The for-profits are losing students and revenues, which (I hope) will force them to shut down. 

Finally, COVID-19 will stop the arms race among colleges to offer expensive recreational facilities, which have become a public embarrassment. LSU's "Lazy River" seemed like a cutting-edge innovation when it was built, but what college would install one now?

COVID-19 will force many small liberal arts colleges to close, which is unfortunate. But this country has too many colleges, and we are long overdue for a pruning process.

American universities are discovering that they can offer instruction in a distance-learning format, and those fancy recreational facilities and "luxury" student dorms are not essential. Maybe high-quality online learning will help higher education can get back to its real mission--which is to offer worthwhile educational experiences that prepare young people to become intelligent, civic-minded, productive citizens.  Wouldn't that be a good thing?


What? No Lazy River?


Monday, April 13, 2020

Fighting for milk: Now is the time to take any kind of work you can get

In the movie Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe plays the part of James J. Braddock, a professional boxer who breaks his hand in the ring, forcing him to leave his chosen profession and work as a common laborer. Then the Depression comes, and Braddock's family faces starvation. Braddock returns to boxing with ferocious intensity and winds up winning the World Heavyweight Championship.

In the movie, a reporter asks Braddock to explain why he had become a better boxer. Braddock answered that he was a better boxer because he had discovered what he was fighting for.  And what was that, the reporter asked?

"Milk," Braddock replied.

Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary made a similar point to people who have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs.  "Apply for any kind of work," she advised. Despite the economic downturn, some companies are still hiring, and all jobs bring in at least some money.

There was a time when experts advised people not to take menial jobs if they had been laid off from a professional position. A stint as a restaurant worker does not look good on the resume of someone who applies for a job as a financial analyst.

Also, many employers are reluctant to hire people who appear to be overqualified for the jobs they are seeking. Unemployed lawyers, for example, have difficulty getting employed as paralegals because the law firms believe that a licensed attorney working as a paraprofessional will be perpetually dissatisfied.

But these are desperate times, and they are becoming more desperate. If you have a home and a family, it makes sense to take any kind of work at all--any money you earn helps protect what is important to you.

After all, as the cinematic version of James Braddock showed us, working for milk is a dignified occupation.


Russell Crow as James J. Braddock: Working for milk

Friday, April 10, 2020

"If I were a carpenter": Manual skills will be more valuable than a liberal arts degree in the post-coronavirus economy

If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby?

Tim Hardin
Sung best by Johnny Cash and June Carter

James Howard Kunstler wrote somewhere that in the coming age, carpenters will be more valued than people who design video games (or words to that effect). Kunstler's observation worried me because I have no mechanical skills at all, although I am a pretty good gardener.

Kunstler is right, and the coming age is now. Coronavirus is transforming the American economy. Millions of jobs have been lost that won't come back. All of a sudden, it matters if a person has real skills. A carpenter is going to be more valued in the years ahead than a sociology professor.

Americans have indulged themselves in the acquisition of meaningless university degrees--hundreds of thousands of degrees, and they will soon learn that all the millions of hours spent in university classrooms won't help them feed themselves.

I should know. I have been a university professor for 25 years, and I sat on dozens of dissertation committees. I would be embarrassed to list the titles of some of the dissertations I approved.  I remember one doctoral student at the University of Houston who wrote his thesis on what it felt like to be a graduate student.  I feel sure he is a tenured professor at some obscure regional university.

During my years in the Alice and Wonderland world of higher education, I stumbled across several instances of plagiarism. No plagiarist I discovered was ever kicked out of graduate school.  We treated plagiarism like a punctuation error--easily corrected.

All this foolishness was financed by the federal student-loan program, the Pell Grant program, and various forms of state and federal government support. And most of the people who acquired frothy university degrees got jobs--often soft-skill jobs in the public sector.  But few people who collected these degrees learned how to make anything useful.

Of course, not all higher education is vacuous. Programs in engineering, the medical profession, law, and accounting all teach useful skills. And several of my colleagues in my own field, which is education, are excellent scholars and dedicated teachers. I cast no aspersions on their work. But in general, the fields of education, liberal arts, and social studies offer degrees that lack real substance.

As I write this, nearly 17 million Americans are out of work, and this is just the first wave of job losses. Before the end of this year, people in government and education are going to feel the cold breath of a new Depression.  Experts reasonably predict that the unemployment rate in this country will reach 30 percent.

The world of higher education is in for a rude shock. Slovenly professors, who did very little work and made rare appearances on campus dressed in gym clothes, are going to lose their cushy sinecures.  If they are smart, they will acquire a craft skill and retool themselves as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, or technical workers.

As the job market for college professors collapses--and it will collapse, few laid-off professors are going to find new positions in academia. So If they don't retool, they will be forced on the dole, subsisting on food stamps and living with someone who has a real job.  

As for the people who took out student loans to get frivolous degrees, they are going to find it damned difficult to get a decent job and even more challenging to pay off their student debt. They, too, will need to master a useful skill if they aspire to own a home, get married, or have children.