Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Remember Sunrise Semester?

By Professor Doom


Admin: “Utilization of Online Education will change the interface of higher education! We need to position ourselves to take advantage of these learners by installing dashboards and establishing metrics to strategically enhance our retention plan for growth in the 21st century…”

--I’m kidding here, completely making up the usual administrative gibberish…I bet I fooled a few.


Online education is all the rave now, since supposedly it’s the wave of the future, the One True Way that will make higher education available to all (but what about public libraries, haven’t they been around for many decades?). I can’t even begin to estimate the number of hours I’ve had administrators lecture me on how important it is to maximize this revenue stream, the better to enhance their administrative salaries.


At my alma mater, a small, private college, there are 350 faculty members, 67% of whom are contingent labor and 4% of whom are tenured. There are 2200 students and--wait for it!--1300 administrative positions. What in the world can ever explain those numbers?

--part of the advantage of online work is faculty become basically irrelevant to higher education. There is a book on this.


I’ll grant I have the resistance to change that all “old folks” have, but allow me to inject some sanity into this mad rush to onlinedness for everyone.

There has always been an interest in using newfangled technology for education. Over a century ago, reliable mail service made “correspondence courses” a possibility. You could sit in your farmhouse with a kerosene lamp and take college courses, reading books on your own time and demonstrating skills. Back then, institutions of higher education had integrity, and, realizing that correspondence courses required very little effort on the part of the institution, charged a much reduced fee for this type of course. You can still find that now, and every few years I get a student taking such a course looking to hire a tutor to help with the concepts. “Cheap” correspondence courses didn’t have much prestige, and were pretty vulnerable to scammers, but never really caught on.

This is no surprise.

For most of human existence, the key way humans learned a skill was to be physically near a human demonstrating the skill, one willing to explain exactly what he’s doing. This is what most “apprenticeship” programs are, after all, and it’s little different in higher education, where the skills are far more arcane than necessary for almost all human beings. A hardworking student could nevertheless learn a skill from a book (I even learned how to juggle just from reading a book, and, of course, with much dedicated practice) if no other option was available.

Radio next became the hot new technology for education. There were radio courses—talk about available to everyone!—which admittedly weren’t so effective, since you had to actually tune in at the right time to catch the lecture, and humans really benefit from seeing a skill in action.

Then came television. The hot new technology was exploited via “Sunrise Semester,” where the university would broadcast taped lectures very early in the morning. The student could wake up early, and watch, or just use the Betamax machine (I might still have a few such tapes in a box somewhere) or VHS to record the lecture, for later consumption. These were offered at my institution when I was an undergraduate, and I imagine other major schools had something similar. Although these courses are not much different than long YouTube videos, they never caught on enough to really matter. It worked for a few students, but most folks really needed the “old school” way of direct learning in the presence of someone who knew the material.

Now, we have the newfangled technology of the internet…and it’s wildly successful, despite being little different from Sunrise Semester. Now, absolutely, much of that success is both obviously and completely bogus, but even so it’s still more successful than previous techno-offerings of delivery.

Admin won’t think about the origin of the success of online coursework, instead being content to suck up all the student loan money despite the blatant fraud. Allow me to explain the difference why videos today are so much more popular than videos 20 years ago. Next time.









  1. Britain's Open University -- founded by the Labour government in 1965 -- managed to make use of television. They would broadcast their lectures (maybe still do) early in the morning and late at night on BBC2. I watched some of the math lectures back in the late '80s -- on Fourier analysis, complex analysis, differential geometry and Galois theory. The quality was high -- much better than the ill-organised and ill-presented lectures I had to contend with at the U of London. Unfortunately what's missing is interaction with other students (the faculty are typically not approachable or available).

    In the USA there's been this obsession with tech as educational panacea throughout the 20th century. Not once have the wild expectations with regard to a new technology been met. The latest craze revolves around "MOOCs" (e.g., Coursera and Udacity). But the same fundamental problem remains -- little or no access to faculty and other students. Learning, math, and science generally are *social* activities -- this can't be emphasised with sufficient strength. The real purpose of the MOOC is to cut faculty yet further. Some of this may trickle down to lower fees -- for instance, Georgia Tech is offering a cut-price $6,000 online Master's in computer science.

  2. Yes, the same problems remain, but now suddenly they're very popular. I'll finish that thought next time.

    I did see the Georgia Tech has shown some integrity and offered cut-rate prices for cut-rate education. I hope it works out for them.