Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Like a lot of institutions of higher education, the college at which I work has recently expanded its menu of online and web-enhanced courses. The growth of such programs is attributable to many factors, foremost among them the strategy of increasing enrollment while simultaneously lowering instructional costs. With transportation costs rising, student aid shrinking, college budgets swelling, and online institutions such as the University of Phoenix vying for student dollars, traditional schools are finding it in their interest to offer the far more accessible and affordable option of computer-mediated instruction.

I'm not going to enter into the debate over whether these courses provide as good an education as the traditional classroom. To be sure, I refuse to teach them myself, but that's largely because I believe they degrade the teaching profession both tangibly (by encouraging the recruitment of low-paid, part-time faculty labor) and philosophically (by transforming education into yet another product you can buy on the web). I do, however, use our institution's web-based software to provide students with course materials, as well as to read the papers my students write; thus my courses fall into the category of "web-enhanced" (traditional in-classroom courses with web extras). I've adopted this route primarily for its presumed environmental advantages: as someone who reads between 4,000 and 5,000 pages of student work every semester (and who provides students with hundreds of pages of course materials), it seemed obvious to me that I could save trees by placing all these materials and reading all these papers online. At our start-of-semester in-service, our Academic Vice President supported this belief: noting that something like 200 courses on our campus now have a web presence, he singled out the environmental benefits this increase presumably bestows.

But I wonder whether those advantages are really as great as he--and I--would like to believe. Some contrasting evidence would suggest they're not: it takes a lot of energy to power all those servers, after all, and the reduction in paper (and in fossil fuels spent driving to class) might be offset by the raw materials necessary to keep the online courses up and running. More importantly, it may be that online and web-enhanced courses play into the larger problem I believe lies at the root of all our environmental problems: alienation from the physical world, from local landscapes and communities, and the corresponding neglect of or indifference to the degradation of the world around us. Writing during the Depression, Aldo Leopold pondered the challenge of environmental education: "The problem is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness." His point was that the educated of his time--the urbanites, the social elite--were precisely the people who had least direct contact with the ultimate sources of their existence: buying their food from grocery stores, living in paved cities, driving to work, these people were either disdainful or simply ignorant of the world around them. Thus education was directly facilitating a social shift away from the land: farmers' children, once educated, were unlikely to return to the farm, and over time the population's connection to the land was apt to become ever more tenuous.

Could it not be that the turn to online education is weakening this connection even more? There is ample evidence of a decline in environmental awareness, knowledge, and commitment among young people, which some writers attribute to the increasing time the current generation spends in front of video screens instead of outdoors. What are the implications of transforming young people's college education into yet another four years of staring at a video screen? How might such an experience solidify their belief that knowledge, prestige, and well-being reside within their laptop instead of the landscape?

At the start of my Environmental Literature class, I ask my students, "How many of you live on the land?" Almost no one answers "I do," which is partly a function of the fact that very few of them come from rural environments, but more a function of how they're misreading the question: we all live on the land, but we've been socialized and educated to believe we don't (and that it's backward and degrading if we do). And maybe, by teaching this course via web enhancement, I'm contributing to the very belief the course tries to attack. Maybe, in saving the trees, I'm helping my students miss the forest.

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