Friday, February 13, 2009

The Professor Is Sorry: Or, earn a degree on your iPod in just two months!

I was recently directed to the following TV commercial presented by Kaplan University:

On the one hand, I kinda love the message of this commercial. On the other hand, I want to kill the messenger. Kind of. I think.

The commercial is for Kaplan University, which bills itself as an institution of higher learning dedicated to providing innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing professional education. The site proclaims with pride:
Our programs foster student learning with opportunities to launch, enhance, or change careers in a diverse global society. The University is committed to general education, a student-centered service and support approach, and applied scholarship in a practical environment.

What you don't get from this description is the fact that Kaplan is an online university, also known in some circles as a distance learning institution and in others as a diploma mill. Through Kaplan, you can earn degrees ranging from a professional certificate to a master's degree. You can, for godsake, earn a juris doctorate through Kaplan Online.

In many important ways, of course, this is worrisome. Aside from the fact that a student could ostensibly become, say, a police officer with no field training, there's also the question of fraud. Fraud. Fraud. Fraud.

On the other hand, the rise in popularity of online universities points to a shift in how we think about expertise. While web 2.0 technologies increasingly allow us to offer expertise in a variety of areas, with or without educational credentials, the desire for evidence of expertise lingers in our collective psyches. Ultimately, we still believe that when our cat's kidneys start to fail, the single veterinarian who spent 8 years in school followed by years of field experience can provide better advice than the two thousand cat owners on a devoted forum.

There is something to be said for the apprenticeship model of learning, one in which an aspiring neurosurgeon trains under the watchful and caring eye of a senior and more experienced expert. At the same time, however, one of the enormous affordances of participatory culture is that it enables us to tap into collective knowledge and collaborate on continuing to build that knowledge. We might call this collective expertise: All of us are more expert than one of us (especially if we can get the vet to join the forum).

This doesn't mean I would trust two thousand pet owners to perform surgery on my cat, of course. Collective expertise does not always, after all, exchange at the same rate as apprenticeship, especially when the field requires a high degree of specialization and an intricate web of skills, mindsets, and practices. It does mean, though, that the meanings of "expertise" and, therefore, "credibility" have gotten just a little broader. And it means we need to reconsider what it means to be an "expert," in professional domains as well as those defined by personal and social affinities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i can't think of anything more hateful than an online doctorate -- one pours his (or her) hardearned $ only to graduate with virtually no employment options and a compromised learning experience.

The only consistent substantive difference between this and offline learning, though, are the job prospects. :) and the yummy scholarships of a brick and mortar U. You can go to any school and pay a lot, and coast academically.

Congratulations on your new blog. Now stop telling me about it! : )


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