In my classroom at the community college where I teach, students can sit in two types of seats: at computers, which are arranged in horseshoe formation facing three walls in the room,or at the four rows of long desks that are in the center. It's a tight space, each table seating seven students. But every morning we meet, as if by instinct, my freshmen choose these desks over the individual computer stations. They wait to be asked before logging onto the PCs -- and they wait sitting quite close together. They are an ethnically diverse group from various Baltimore communities, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and a wide range of college preparedness.
Their desire to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing me, is essential. It means, whether they realize it or not, that their concept of college is driven by human interaction. The Internet, which many of them access nonstop through smartphones, is a secondary resource in our classroom. I, the live person, smiling encouragingly as they expound on a thought, am the first.
When discussing the rise of online learning and free massive open online courses as waves of the future, many ignore the dynamic a classroom like mine provides for a population often let behind. An unawareness of this important dynamic was evident at a recent public conversation between Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, New America Foundation president (and Atlantic contributing editor) Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg, when they discussed the apparent flaws in the traditional college model.
Steinberg, 35, was particularly negative about college as we know it today. He said that, when the time comes, he'll likely discourage his three- and four-year-old children from attending.“Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said. Steinberg went onto say that it’s Buzzfeed’s fellowship programs that best prepare their new hires. He characterizes a college degree as representing “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set” and adds, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they ... desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”
Perhaps owing to a generational gap, Schmidt and Slaughter, both in their 50s, still believe there's space for brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning, but more for the soft skills students learn outside the classroom, such as bill-paying, relationship-building, and self-reliance, and for the job opportunities a college degree may still be able to offer.
Said Schmidt: “The purpose of college… has a lot to do with, not learning about education but learning how to live on your own and so forth…. The core question is what to do with 18-year-olds and the best thing to do is to put them in college until they’re 22. We’ve [got] sort of a warehousing problem.” He also said that, because college is a rite of passage that helps students learn how to live away from home, “I think it’s going to be around for a very long time.”
Slaughter mentioned that her son, a junior in high school, is mulling college but has also “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.” She adds it’s becoming more common for students to take time off before attending college. “These kids are sort of thinking, ‘But I can learn what I need to learn online.’ … That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”
Theirs is, without doubt, a "one-percent" conversation. All three are Ivy League-educated -- a point that Schmidt was quick to acknowledge as Steinberg pooh-poohed the importance of college -- and Slaughter just left a tenured professorship at Princeton to accept the presidency at New America Foundation.
Generational access to higher education makes it far easier to conceive of a society where the average citizen can afford to eschew the in-person college experience and "just learn what they need online." For Steinberg's children especially, having a parent who became the president of Buzzfeed well before the age of 35 does make college attendance seem quite optional.
In the larger country in which we live, however, first-generation college students still make up about 30 percent of freshman classes each year. First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers. And a study by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted that the state’s first-gen drop-out rate for those in face-to-face, on-campus classes was 18 percent, as opposed to 25 percent for distance learners. Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.
Imagine how it must feel for them, hearing that this pinnacle toward which their families have urgently and hopefully pushed them is now considered all but obsolete by the titans of industry they believe are stakeholders in their future.
Six years in this career have taught me that online instruction, while valuable and convenient for many, is still no substitute for what can be found in a physical classroom--especially for students whose primary and high schools either invested very little interest in or actively discouraged their attending college in the first place.
In the past two weeks, two of my black male students have submitted narrative essays recounting their first brush with discrimination. Both were school-based incidents and both involved teachers either telling them they were likelier to see the inside of a jail than the inside of a classroom like mine or singling them out for the faintest behavioral infractions while allowing their white classmates' racial slurs to remain unchecked. Though the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline is well documented, only the most overt instances of bias make mainstream news. Hundreds of thousands of subtler, unreported incidents, like the ones my students chose to explore in their very first college assignment, happen daily.
Racial bias isn't the thing deterring students like mine from going to college. Some teachers and counselors in low-income, poverty-impacted communities also use the ever-rising cost of tuition to dissuade students. Though it's true that a MOOC is a viable supplement for those who need to work full-time while preparing to finance their degrees credit-by-credit, students who are admonished to believe that even a two-year degree may be unattainable should not be expected to self-guide their entire higher education experience.
Traditional college classrooms provide students who've borne this kind of discrimination with an opportunity to push back against early exposure to negative messagesabout their life prospects. Their very presence in brick-and-mortar classrooms becomes an act of protest and self-affirmation. Moreover, their presence offers considerably privileged students a unique opportunity to learn and live alongside learners who are, in many ways, their opposite.
Discussions about the future of education should never undersell the social import of sitting side by side, of holding conversations with students vastly unlike oneself, and of students being able to see their peers respond to their newly acquired insights. These are not mere soft skills being gleaned in a glorified warehouse. These are the true cornerstones of lifelong learning.