Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”

When School is a Factory

For 20 years, I have been teaching large arts and humanities general education courses at the University of California, Irvine. These 400-student classes are part of the undergraduate “breadth requirements” common in most colleges and universities, and hence draw enrollments from across the academic disciplines. At UC Irvine, this means that most of the class comprises science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. Aside from an orientation to more practical fields, I’ve noticed a clear shift in student attitudes in recent years –– a heightened preoccupation with grades and rankings, combined with growing anxieties about future earnings. Many of my colleagues see this as well, often disparaging students more concerned with GPA metrics than learning itself, while increasingly behaving more like consumers of educational commodities. I take a more sanguine view.

Bear in mind that many of today’s college students grew up during the Great Recession, when families of all incomes had money worries. With scant knowledge of a world before 9/11, it’s little wonder that polls show millennials expecting lower earnings than their parents, seeing the United States on a downward spiral, and believing the two-party system as fatally flawed.[i] Rising income inequality doesn’t help matters, especially at UC Irvine where 6 in 10 students get financial aid and half are the first in their families earning a college degree.[ii] Because of this, Irvine has been cited by the New York Times as the country’s leading “upward mobility engine” –– making the campus a national model of what public higher education can do.[iii] But it’s still not a cake-walk for degree seekers. As at most public universities in America, the majority of Irvine’s full-time students also work at jobs to make ends meet.[iv] Continue reading “When School is a Factory”

Welcome to Cyberschool: Education at the Crossroads in the Information Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)

In the United States education has a special place in the national imagination. Years ago, schooling was viewed as a critical tool of democracy, functioning as both a social equalizer and  a route to the American Dream. In more recent decades, education has enjoyed a less of exalted image, as the great social equalizer has been cast as the source of social, economic, and even moral decay in the United States. Schools have been characterized as bloated public bureaucracies populated by incompetent teachers allowing  standardized test score averages to drop below those of our international competitors. Competition and individual achievement are stressed over community values and the common good.

In the “tough love” climate of the times, school policies lost whatever liberal bent they had, as funding from Washington was systematically reduced. With less federal money, local school districts were obliged to depend increasingly more on local property tax revenues––which vary wildly from region to region. This exacerbated the differences between impoverished and wealthy schools,as gaps widened between white and non-white schools, and between those that  were technology rich and technology poor. Naming this condition one of “savage inequalities,” Jonathan Kozol asserted that progressive redistributive efforts had been “turned back a hundred years.”

Soon more profound changes occurred.  As offspring of the baby boom generation began to enter the classroom in the 1990s, debates over education shifted from assignments of blame to prescriptions for improvement. With government deficits turning into occasional surpluses, a renewed sense of urgency returned to educational policy discussions.  Suddenly everyone had ideas about how to fix schools by testing teachers, firing administrators, tinkering with admissions, offering vouchers, or promoting school choice. Joining the cacophony of voices were religious leaders, politicians, radio talk-show hosts, academics––in short, just about everyone except parents and students.  If the debates yielded anything, they demonstrated how multidimensional a problem effective educational reform turned out to be

Further complicating these discussions was an overriding belief that “technology” could help somehow. With the meteoric growth of high tech companies and their contribution to the nation’s economic recovery, technology became the solution to every problem. . Significantly, these early proponents of technologically-mediated education saw themselves as progressive reformers, not unlike the current promoters of computerized learning.

The Crisis of Meaning in Culture and Education (Minnesota, 1995)

The United States is facing a democratic crisis. Conventional definitions of citizenship and national identity have been thrown into question by ruptures in the global political landscape, changing post-industrial economic relations,  shifting racial demographics, and new attitudes toward sexuality and religion.  In a post-cold war era lacking in superpower conflicts, old fears of foreign insurgency have been supplanted by anxieties about trade deficits, declining educational standards, and a loss of common purpose. As social inequities continue to increase, citizens are losing faith in the government and the master narratives supporting it.

Few could have predicted the speed with which Europe would be reconfigured by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Yet rather than easing international tensions, these events have triggered new forms of national chauvinism and regional antagonism. Complicating matters further is the so-called post-Fordist restructuring of global capitalism. As the world evolves into a transnational marketplace and the production of goods and services has become more fluid and decentralized,  the distance between rich and poor nations has continued to widen. Meanwhile, within the U.S. a once dominant white majority is quickly being diminished by communities of color.  Factor in the growing influence of feminism, challenges to the traditional nuclear family,  and more recent activism supporting the rights of lesbians and gay men, and it becomes clear that a massive movement—indeed, a majority movement—is rising to confront the reigning order.

Not surprisingly, these shifts have produced considerable public tension,  along with a disturbing tendency to reach for quick and easy ways to settle disputes. Witness recent social unrest in cities from Los Angles to Atlanta, the broad-based hostility toward legislative and judicial figures, and the remarkable popularity of such fringe personas as Rush Limbaugh and Ross Perot.  Claiming to appeal to populist sentiments this new breed of would-be demagogues has emerged to push for stricter laws, harder tests, and an ever more puritanical set of cultural standards.

More disturbingly, this means finding people to blame for the nation’s problems. In foreign policy, this translates into the construction of an endless chain of foreign conflicts into which the U.S. must intervene in its new role as global peace keeper. In each instance the U.S. military portrays itself as the force of reason in a world overrun by savage tribes and mad dictators. Even as the efficacy of old legal conventions and bureaucratic structures is thrown further into doubt, new justifications are advanced for consolidated power and political control on a global scale.  For a growing number of conservative ideologues, these new international dynamics call for a simple and familiar strategy: the return of colonialism.