Online PhDs

If there is a concept that always makes me laugh very hard it’s that of an online PhD. However, there are quite a few people who don’t see the idea as deeply humorous. Boise State is one of them. The university has now introduced an online-only PhD. The school’s official discuss the program in very pompous terms in a futile attempt to prevent people from laughing out loud at the idea:

Dr. Ross Perkins, associate professor in Educational Technology, warns that although people may be critical of online education, it has every bit the quality of traditional education. “People shouldn’t be discriminated for where they chose to live,” said Perkins.  Online programs offer people in rural areas the opportunity to study programs that may not be available to them.

The program will also boost the university’s research profile.  Having more students graduate from doctorate programs could allow for an increase in grants funding.

What’s truly funny here is that Dr. Perkins is trying to shut down any criticism of the program by presenting it as some kind of a heroic attempt to combat discrimination. The original definition of the word “to discriminate” is the following:

1. Recognize a distinction; differentiate.
2. Perceive or constitute the difference in or between
As much as Boise State administrators would like for people to fail to recognize a distinction between a real doctoral program where students have a chance to get educated through discussions with their peers and mentors and a sad parody of a PhD where you are stuck home alone staring at some PowerPoints, this isn’t likely to happen. Far from raising the university’s research profile, this online program will make it a joke among educators everywhere.
Thank you, Margaret Soltan, for posting a link to this story.

A Doom and Gloom Scenario for Professors

I’m too sick with flu to determine whether this weird article in Inside Higher Ed is some sort of a parody. So maybe my readers can help me figure it out. It is titled “Get Out While You Can” and presents a really apocalyptic scenario of tenured professors being fired in droves all over the country and being left jobless and broke. The author believes in the imminence of this scenario because of the tired old story about the crazy Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids to drop out of college. Apparently, without these very stupid students the entire system of higher education is doomed to collapse extremely soon.

Another bugbear discussed in the article is the scary online education that is going to administer itself without any input from actual professors. I wish the technology-hater who wrote the article provided some links to the places where online courses get generated and administered all on their own. This would save me a lot of time I’m about to spend trying to prepare my own online course. Remember those sci-fi novels from the fifties that kept scaring us about how soon robots and computers would replace real people? It must be the same computers that will run our online courses for us.

The other sign that the author is still hopelessly stuck in the fifties can be found in the following sentence:

If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this. [Some video game excerpt is inserted here]

The good news is that, nowadays, not only are women allowed to attend college, they also get more degrees than men. Also, in spite of the author’s contempt towards 18-year-old males, many of them can recognize the value of a good education well enough.

According to the article, the only reason anybody goes to college is to avoid some imaginary stigma that attaches to you in case you don’t have a college degree. Remember, this is an educator writing. An educator who has obviously not talked to an actual student in decades. The conclusion by this author who is currently writing a book about the danger of smart people and smart technology is fit material for a standup routine:

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.

I was wriggling with laughter after the very first sentence. After the second one, I started to hiccup from laughter. When I finished reading the article, though, I paused and thought, “What if this very disturbed person is speaking in earnest? And if so, then how can anybody argue that this sort of professor is fit to be retained in his job?”

Choosing a Major in College

I know that I don’t have many readers who are at the stage of choosing a college major, but Jonathan just published a really great long post with very useful advice on the subject. As a student advisor, I often meet students who chose a major that sounded cool and prestigious, like “Communications” and who in their senior year have no idea what people who majored in this vaguely defined field do for a living. I have tried to get students to explain to me what “Communications” as a field of knowledge means but all I get in response is a lot of hand-waving and vague, incomprehensible noises. This is not aimed at picking on Communications. Crowds of people go into Marketing, for example, (for personal reasons I am very familiar with the field) only to discover upon graduation that the industry is nothing like what they’d imagined. Here is part of the advice that Jonathan provides:

Beware of “generic” majors like “communications” and “international relations.” I’m talking about majors that attract students that don’t really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don’t major in it because that’s what your sorority sisters do.

One thing that I would add to Jonathan’s great article is the following: if there is a field of knowledge that fascinates you, that makes you want to bring a cot and bunk down in front of the department’s door during the weekend, then this is the field you need to choose, even though it might sound completely unprestigious and people keep telling you that you will never find a job if you major in it.

I have a student who loves Spanish. He probably loves it as much as I do, which is a lot. He is constantly hanging around our department, trying to organize Spanish-related activities with other students, coming by my office, using any opportunity to speak the language. I have no idea how he finds time to do anything else since he is always around our department. This student, however, not only isn’t majoring in Spanish, he isn’t even doing a minor in it. He wanted to initially but then he got discouraged by all the “you need to choose something more practical” talk that people kept giving him. There is nothing practical, in my opinion, in forcing yourself into a career that doesn’t make you light up when you think of it. When I first started taking undergrad courses in Hispanic Studies, I once heard my father say to a friend, “I’m not sure I understand what she is doing but I can see that she starts glowing whenever she talks about it, and that’s good enough for me.”

Choosing a major just because you think it will end up bringing you more money than the field you really love is like rejecting a person you are crazy about in favor of somebody you don’t much like because s/he is rich. In the long run, it is never worth it.

Read the rest of Jonathan’s post here.