Saturday, December 13, 2008

I'm off to back in a hour

The ad popped up right in the middle of my PC while I was pleasure surfing: An attractive woman, wearing short shorts and a halter top, was stretched out comfortably on a chaise lounge with a laptop balanced on her mid section.
The accompanying caption read, “Earn your degree from anywhere.”
This woman was attending college?
While tanning?
In a lounge chair?
What in the name of Dale Carnegie is going on?
Since the PC entered our lives, we have learned to do just about everything without leaving our desks. We are shopping on line, paying our bills, finding the perfect Eggs Benedict recipe and quickly finding answers to questions like, “what was the monetary unit of New Guinea in 1842?” if we so desire.
But “distance learning”? Earning a college degree without actually attending college? What gives?.
I graduated from Northwestern University in 1984. I recently drove through the campus. Not much had changed. The library looked exactly the same as did the student union, the fraternities and the residential quads. I have great memories of the school but none were of the academic variety. I wasn’t the greatest student, often employing cliff notes and relying on teaching assistants to help me struggle to maintain a B average.
But one thing I knew I had to do in order to stay in school: I had to SHOW UP to class.
Oh sure, some professors taped their lectures and offered the tapes to students who missed class. But listening to a professor on tape back in 1984 was about as easy as trying to understand a McDonald’s employee through a drive-in speaker. “Distance learning” back in 1984 meant you sat in the back row.
I don’t want to make it sound like I was writing term papers with an inkwell and a fountain pen by glow of kerosene lamp. I’m not that old. There were computers back then but they existed primarily in a strange looking building simply called “Vogelback.” Since Northwestern is a private university, most of its buildings were named after whoever could fork over multi-million dollar donations. If a “Mr. Vogelback” did indeed exist, I’m sure his biography included a stint at Hitler Youth camp.
Vogelback was a non-descript low-rise building that looked like it could easily have housed the entire university’s plumbing system. It was a diabolical place to say the least. I had friends who would walk through Vogelback’s doors on Wednesday and often not come out until the following Monday. They exited carrying lengthy rolled up papers containing the results of whatever “program” they had been trying to run. The key word here is “trying.” Programs NEVER ran on the first try. Running a successful program was a never-ending session of finding “errors,” fixing them, running the program again and discovering new errors. .
One night I encountered a frat buddy sitting in our dining room and poring over his program. He announced that his starting program contained 678 errors but he’d “gotten that down to about 315.” He sounded almost giddy, an amazing feat considering he had not slept in nine days.
Three-hundred fifteen errors? President Bush hasn’t made that many mistakes.
In four years of college, I never once set foot in Vogelback. Instead, I majored in journalism, which required me to bang out papers on an electric Smith-Corona typewriter with the uncanny ability to run out of ribbon ink only between midnight and 7 a.m., while every office supply store in the country was closed.
Furthermore, when exam week rolled around, I slogged across campus regardless of weather to the lecture hall where I was handed a small, multi-page booklet containing approximately 20 sheets of lined paper. It was called simply a “blue book” and it was where I wrote (or often bs’d) answers to the finals. Never once did I do this while sitting in a chaise lounge.
This is precisely why I wanted to reach through my PC the other day and strangle this college “student” who was making the process of earning a degree look easier than making instant coffee.
The ad was sponsored by Monster Learning Network, a division of the popular job site I clicked on the ad and was taken here where I learned that on-line degrees were offered by the University of Phoenix, the Art Institutes and DeVry University. I even saw a list of the most popular on-line degrees:
• M.B.A in e-Business
• RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing
• Master of Education in Adult Education and Distance Learning
• Masters in Computer Information Systems
• Master of Education in Curriculum and Technology

I had to admit, all of these degrees sounded far more impressive than “Bachelor of Science in Journalism, Northwestern University.”
For years, I have received almost weekly emails from the University of Phoenix, encouraging me to EARN MY DEGREE. At first I scoffed at the idea and assumed the University of Phoenix would go the way of and other web sites that flamed out during the dot com bust. But the University of Phoenix is going strong and today is the largest private university of North America, according to numerous sources (read: Wikipedia!) I also learned the average student’s age is between 33 and 36 and most have outside work commitments. This leads me to believe that the on line program is booming.
Yet I still can’t fathom the idea of going to college while sitting in Starbucks. Or McDonald’s. Or on a chaise lounge like the Monster Network beauty queen. What do these students do for fun? Join a virtual fraternity? Attend on line football games? Get drunk at cyber bars?
Even more, I wonder how one takes a test on line? As I sit and write this blog, I can see the Google search bar in the upper right corner of the screen. If I have a question about ANYTHING, it’s there to help me find the answer. All I have to do is type the question in the box.
Which begs the question…what prevents an on line student from seeking help via Google while taking an on line test?
Hmmm, that’s a tough question. I don’t know the answer. But perhaps somebody at might have an idea.
Get my point? I know I’m old school but I question how much “learning” is happening on line. At the very least, students should take tests in a classroom, under the watchful eyes of professors and teaching assistants who are making sure they know the material and aren’t resorting to cheating using tools such as…THE ENTIRE INTERNET!
Obviously the folks at University of Phoenix don’t agree with me. They might read this blog and decide they’ve been defamed or libeled. Maybe they will sue me.
No problem. I’ll represent myself.
Right after I get my law degree.
But first I need a chaise lounge.